Grief and bereavement are affected by how death is viewed in different cultures. People throughout the world experience the hardship of significant loss every day. The longer a person lives, the more prone they are to suffer from loss. Each culture has its unique way of dealing with the death of loved ones and how these losses affect those left behind. Culture and religion significantly influence how people grieve and how communities support mourning individuals.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How Different Major World Religions Deal With Grief
- How Different Geographical Areas, Countries, or Cultures Deal With Grief
Although grief is a highly personal experience that differs from one person to the next, the way people express their feelings and emotions is highly influenced by their beliefs and where they live. While some parts of the world consider the open display of emotion acceptable and expected, others might discourage this behavior based on their particular beliefs and practices. Here, we examine how some of the world’s major religions deal with grief.
How Different Major World Religions Deal With Grief
When looking at how people worldwide experience grief and bereavement, there are many differences in each culture and its people. For some cultures, grief is an enduring experience that never ends but evolves. In traditions that hold final death rituals, grieving has an eventual stopping point following a period of mourning and bereavement.
Bereavement is the period where grief and mourning intersect. A grieving individual may stay in mourning for an extended period, depending on the closeness of the relationship with the deceased and specific cultural or religious dictates. The following is a brief overview of how major world religions deal with grief.
The Christian faith offers spiritual grief support to individuals struggling to cope with the death of a loved one. Scripture offers comfort, support, and guidance to those who need comfort in knowing that their loved one's existence continues beyond the physical life. The religion offers continued support to families and communities through prayer, congregation, customs, and death rituals lasting throughout the year.
Many of the religion's major holidays involve honoring the deceased and the promise of an afterlife. Holidays like Christmas and Easter combine traditional religious celebrations with the spiritual belief that there's an afterlife to look forward to in the next stage following death that helps lessen the pain of grief.
Islam tradition accepts grieving over a death of a loved one as a natural and normal reaction to loss. Openly crying at the time of death, funeral, and burial as a form of grief expression is acceptable over wailing and self-harm or mutilation.
The traditional mourning period is three days for family members and other loved ones. During this time, religious mandates prohibit a person from dressing in decorative clothing and jewelry. Making dua or supplication for forgiveness is a significant part of grieving in Islam and tradition. Overcoming grief in the Islamic religion includes the following:
- Sabr (Patience)
- Not dwelling in isolation
- Aiding and Forgiveness
- Sadaqa (Charity)
- Occupying oneself
The Buddhist belief in reincarnation and life after death plays a significant role in how mourners grieve the deaths of loved ones. The teachings of Buddhism hold that nothing in this physical world is permanent, and things are in a constant flux of impermanence and change.
These religious philosophies attached to Buddhism and grief include our life here on earth, our health, and everyday circumstances. Most Buddhists find comfort in the spiritual practice of non-attachment. They understand that their grief is impermanent and transformative even when it lasts a lifetime. Suffering and despair will never look the same from one moment to the next as it evolves.
The Jewish religion has specific grief rituals and timelines following the death of a loved one that provides bereaved individuals with guidelines on how to honor the deceased and comfort those left behind. In the Jewish tradition, there's a year of mourning involving death rituals and customary rules of mourning within the Jewish community.
There are also a set of religious obligations to the deceased and mourners alike, which categorizes mourners and their expected modes of conduct up to a year following the death of a close loved one. For many Jews, ongoing mourning is accepted, expected, and supported in the Jewish community, with certain memorial rituals lasting a lifetime. The stages of grief for Jewish people include:
- Avelut - (30 days for a spouse, sibling, or child, and one year for a parent)
- Aninut - entry into mourning
- Shiva - the first week of mourning
- Shloshim - the first 30 days
- Shana - the end of mourning one year later
In Hinduism, the idea that when a person dies, their soul lives on in a continual cycle of birth, death, and rebirth is part of their core religious beliefs. Hindus learn to let go of deceased loved ones in a process known as detachment. Detachment is a part of the Hindu tradition that helps them accept death as a part of life, and they get that every living being must one day die.
Final rites in Hinduism include cremation of the body and scattering of the cremains into a river marking the end of physical life and the beginning of the soul's spiritual journey. Hindus observe 13 days of mourning after the death of a loved one, where death rituals take place to help comfort the bereaved.
Neo-Paganists, or those who practice traditional ritual magic mixed with modern witchcraft, find themselves unique in having a strong sense of individual spirituality but a community lacking in offering grief support to the bereaved.
Many pagans practice their spirituality independently and rarely belong to organized religious groups. Where spiritual groups exist, they focus on paganism's yearly traditions and practices involving lunar cycles and holidays. Still, they don't usually include a roadmap for dealing with grief and loss.
Some practicing Pagans feel disconnected from their communities when needing to share in their pain and sorrow following the death of a loved one and end up suffering disenfranchised grief.
How Different Geographical Areas, Countries, or Cultures Deal With Grief
There are many different grief narratives in world cultures, and each reacts uniquely depending on the country, traditions, and people of a particular region. Below we see how different cultures deal with grief in specific areas and religious settings. As the interactions between grief and religion change from place to place, we also find many similarities among the people and how they cope with death and mourning in modern times. Below are some of the world’s major regions and how each deals with grief.
7. North America
Grieving individuals in North America, more specifically in the United States, suffering the death of a loved one or another significant setback benefit from the region's religious and cultural diversity. Religion and spirituality play an essential role in many Americans' lives. When identifying the separate areas in the United States, political stance, religion, race, and culture typically mark each.
Christianity makes up the highest percentage of religious following. However, many other religions exist primarily due to immigration. Common grief and mourning rituals include community support following the death of a loved one. Funerals, cremation, wakes, and memorial services all make up the religious diversity of the various groups.
Most Americans find it uncomfortable and taboo to openly talk about grief, leaving bereaved individuals to mourn their losses privately.
Modern Chinese death and mourning rituals combine Chinese social traditions and religious views on death and the afterlife. Chinese death traditions include reestablishing order and harmony in the disruptions of cosmic balance resulting from death, but methods vary significantly among the many different Chinese religions and cultures.
Although these customs differ from one region to the next, they generally hold on to some commonalities in paying final respects, maintaining cosmic order, and the belief that the dead continue influencing the living beyond the grave. Beyond whether individuals choose to grieve openly or privately, the Chinese people deal with their grief by incorporating meaning-making and continuing bonds with the deceased as part of their grieving process.
Celebrations of death in Japan include ancestral rituals in traditional villages to a more modern take on them by today's society. The Japanese spiritual philosophy and culture closely tie into the Buddhist traditions of death and mourning, with some areas having influences from the Shinto religion. Where Buddhism's effect is more prevalent, the idea of an afterlife plays a significant role in the mourning process.
Japanese believe in birth, death, and rebirth cycles, and their grieving process allows for community support and prolonged mourning. The Japanese people express their grief by openly talking about death and dying and their feelings. They also offer each other standard condolence messages, much like in the Western world, where they express words of hope and comfort to the bereaved.
Mexican grief traditions involve openly grieving and honoring the dead and paying last respects to the deceased and the deceased's family. Death rituals almost always include elaborate funerals preceded by a wake or vigil that begins the day before the funeral and lasts all night. The family invites mourners to keep the deceased's family company throughout the night, praying together and ushering the dead into the afterlife.
Mexican tradition has a distinct separation between the living and the dead, and they view death as permanent. However, traditional beliefs hold that the dead can often come back to visit the living, making the grieving process an enduring event.
The Influence of Culture and Religion on Grief and Mourning
Culture, religion, and the grieving process are deeply interwoven in individual lives worldwide. Even when someone isn’t particularly religious, ancient traditions passed down from generations affect how they grieve.
These traditions can manifest in a culture’s holidays and celebrations, even when not recognized as religious. Often people process their losses and learn how to grieve from what they experience in others in their communities starting from a young age.