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The Impact of Culture on Grief.
Dia De Los Muertos

By Cherie

That a festival to do with the dead should be a joyous occasion might perhaps strike those of us from other cultures as something hard to understand. Does biology determine our many characteristics that differentiate our perceptions of how to deal with death and grief? Could our cultural upbringing determine our eventual ways of dealing with death and grief in spite of our biological origins? The Dia De Los Muertos or The Day of the Dead is essentially a private or family feast. It has a public aspect at the community level, but the core of the celebration takes place within the family home. It is a time of family reunion not only for the living but also the dead, who, for a few brief hours each year, return to be with their relatives in this world.

Karen Homey, a psychotherapist during the first half of the 20th century, (Psychology An Introduction, Eleventh Edition), considered environmental and cultural forces could be instrumental in forming our personalities. The explanation can be found in society and culture rather than in biology, as characteristic ways to deal with grief can be changed with corresponding changes in society and culture. For example, I grew up in Venezuela, the daughter of two American citizens but many of my characteristic ways of dealing with grief stem from my formative years as a child in Venezuela in spite of my American origin.

The Day of the Dead is just that, a festival of welcome for the souls of the dead which the living prepare and revel in. The souls return each year to enjoy for a few brief hours the pleasures they once knew in life among their family and friends. Each household prepares its offering of food and drink for the dead to be set out on a table among flowers and candles.

Most Westerners, especially Americans, are too distant in their way of dealing with death and grief. In the Hispanic culture there is the same fear most feel of death, but at least they do not hide their fears nor do they hide from death. The Day of the Dead is celebrated on October 31, the same day the United States celebrates Halloween. The smoke from lit candles going up to Heaven is comforting in that the practice of the Dia De Los Muertos allows for healthy grieving as opposed to the typical "closed door" way Americans deal with grief. The group support that takes place during the Dia De Los Muertos festivities, both in the home and at the church, helps with resolution of grief.

Shapiro (1994) states that "In the dominant North American culture, which emphasizes the centrality of the isolated individual; minimizes the importance of spiritual, as compared to scientific explanations; and stresses the value of 'letting go' and 'moving on', social sanctions are likely to pressure the bereaved into reentering the flow of ordinary life long before (the bereaved) feel psychologically ready" (p. 221). The North American culture doesn't really encourage thinking or talking about death but focuses on the positive things in life. Sometimes this leads one to have an unrealistic outlook about life... that we can Stay young and alive forever; that we will never die. As the reality of the death, the sadness, confusion and anger begins to set in; we don't know what to do or say.

The Day of the Dead is celebrated by visits to graveyards, where relatives decorate the graves, have a picnic, and tell stories about the departed. The holiday helps the dead remain part of family life. On a deeper lever, this party in the graveyard symbolizes that the wheel of life includes death. The best way to describe this Mexican holiday is to say that it is a time when Mexican families remember their dead and celebrate the continuity of life.

The traditional observance calls for a feast during the early morning hours of November 2nd, the Day of the Dead proper, although modem urban Mexican families usually observe the Day of the Dead with only a special family supper featuring the "Bread of the Dead' or the (pan de muerto). It is good luck to be the one who bites into the plastic toy skeleton hidden by the baker in each rounded loaf. Friends and family. members give one another gifts consisting of sugar skeletons or other items with a death motif, and the gift is more prized if the skull or skeleton is embossed with one's own name.

Two important things to remember about the Mexican Day of the Dead are: 1. It is a holiday with a complex history, and therefore its observance varies quite a bit by region and by degree of urbanization. 2. It is not a morbid occasion, but rather a festive one. The Day of the Dead can range from a very important cultural event with definite social and economic responsibilities for those participating to a religious event featuring actual worship of the dead whether or not Catholic priests recognize or approve of the events. Mexico is like most of the world, in that infant mortality and adult illness are much more common than they are in the United States. Death is more a part of life, and perhaps because of this, Mexicans treat it with a healthy mixture of respect and irreverence.

In the United States we have grownup with a culture where we think we have to "fix it". We have lost the basic ability to listen. There is possibly some misconception that if you just don't mention the name of the dead person it will be all right. The grieving isn't observed and we tell ourselves that not mentioning the deceased person's name or the death helps keep the bereaved from getting upset. When in reality it is because we cannot deal with an expression of grief that we cannot do anything about. If there is one thing I have learned from the death of my father. is that it is the healing power of putting grief out in the open and talking about it... that does the most good. The memories of my father are not dead and we cannot bury the memories in the coffin with the deceased person so why not talk about the feelings.

Members of the health care profession also may face a conflict between the needs of a person facing death and her/his family and the pressures they feel from their professional subculture. So in a sense... this could also qualify as a cultural way of dealing or not dealing with death. In the hospital, the human experience of dying is undercut to an extent by the mission of the health care facility from a medical point of view. The mission of health care conflicts sometimes with the needs of dying patients and their families. This results in a clash between the spiritual and the technical, the personal and the impersonal, the subjectivity of the cared for and the objectivity by the caregiver.

Once personal experience with my dad's death...can be considered. He spent the larger part of his life in Venezuela. He spoke Spanish as well as English. For several days before his death he had not opened his eyes, not in response to any stimuli from the medical staff nor even at the sound of familiar voices of his family. For some reason we said a few words in Spanish and noticed that he seemed to hear but didn't open his eyes.

I mentioned to my mother that maybe we should ask for the final blessing to be in Spanish for my father instead of the typical English priest. My mother agreed to the request and we went through the hospital staff and my father's last blessing was given to him in Spanish by a wonderful priest with a beautiful Hispanic voice. A very compassionate man. And guess what? My father opened his eyes...fixed his gaze on the priest...hung on every word that was spoken in Spanish.. .even though my dad was born and raised in south Louisiana.. .of American parents. It was the most moving experience I had ever felt in my life. So being introduced to another culture during one's lifetime that is different from your birth culture can make a definite difference even in death.

Understanding religious and cultural diversity can be extremely important for anyone who provides services and/or support to those affected by death and illness. For effective intervention, a person's beliefs and personal needs must be recognized, honored and appropriately addressed by caregivers. What types of pressures in our society hinder people from working through their grief? At times of loss, when we are the most vulnerable, when we rely so heavily on people to be strong, when we cannot be, is usually when those people are often so terribly uncomfortable that they cannot bare the thought of having to deal with your tears and having to see your grief.

One question comes to mind: Might it be better, easier, possibly emotionally safer to live in a society in which there is less exposure to alternative cultural views? I can answer that with an Culture and diversity is what makes us so wonderful as a people on the whole. My father would not have had such a beautiful, meaningful last rites had he not been exposed to another culture and language during sometime in his life.

One of the most common questions that family and friends ask is how long does it take to "get over" the death of a loved one. Native American culture holds many lessons about grief and its duration. The Native American legend of the Caterpillar people holds lessons for us all in grief. This legend is traditionally told during funeral services of the Shoshone.

"Long ago, there were two caterpillar people who loved each other very much. When the caterpillar man died the caterpillar woman was overcome by her grief. In her remorse she withdrew into herself and pulled her sorrow around her like a shawl. She walked and mourned for a year and because the world is a circle she ended up where she had started. The Creator looked down upon her and told her that she had suffered too long. "Now," he told her" is the time for you to step into a new world of beauty." He clapped his hands and the caterpillar woman burst forth as a butterfly. Her world was now full of beauty and color." I can only comment that...culture is like a butterfly...full of many beautiful colors and differences.


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