Themes and Patterns: Cultural Sensitivity in Grief Support

Responding in a Culturally Sensitive Way to Those Who are Grieving

Patterned tiles of bright colors often remind me of my host mother who took care of me when I studied abroad in Spain.  While I was there, she invited me to meet her sister in Seville. At the time, I wanted to learn more about Spanish tiles and cultural influences of Southern Spain. So, I traveled by train with Julita from her hometown of Salamanca. When we arrived at her sister’s apartment, the two siblings burst into tears. So did all of the nieces who were seated on the couch. My Spanish was still developing, so I vaguely knew what was going on. Somehow I pieced together that Julita’s husband had died at the same time as her sister’s husband. The last time they saw each other was at a funeral. I wasn’t sure how or why I was a part of this special gathering exactly, but I was honored to have been invited.

Yet, I just awkwardly stood there as family members shared stories and I struggled to understand them. I wanted to help or offer support in some way, but the best I could do was to listen. As a visitor to a different country, I felt like I had so much more to learn than one three-month stay could ever teach me. I knew how to order food politely and study literature, art, dance, and history. However, I didn’t know anything about experiencing life or death from another person’s perspective, whose culture differed from mine.

Navigating the intersections of culture and grief can seem challenging. However, there is some general cultural sensitivity information teachers, parents, and friends can use if a student or loved one from another culture is grieving.

First, the whole concept of “culture” influences many different aspects of a person’s or group’s identity. According to J.W. Green, cited in Sandra López’s article, “Culture as an Influencing Factor in Adolescent Grief and Bereavement,” culture is “a way of life of a society, consisting of prescribed ways of behaving or norms of conduct, beliefs, values, and skills. It is a sum total of life patterns passed from generation to generation” (2011, p. 11).  In other words, culture can include shared memories, experiences, and histories. Politics, art, gender identity, sexual orientation, systems for networking, health care, raising children, religion, and education can all form a part of individual and collective cultures.  However,

“Cultural groups are not homogenous, and individual variation must always be considered in situations of death, grief, and bereavement” (Clements, et al., 2003).

Individuals might deviate from what the members of their culture may or may not do when presented with death.

So, even if parents, caregivers, and teachers were to read up on every culture and religion in the world, they would have to keep in mind that individuals vary regarding the degree and extent to which they identify with a given culture. For instance, within some cultures, when grieving, it’s acceptable to cry openly. Others might not, in order to avoid interfering with the deceased member’s transition from death to the afterlife. Social hierarchy could dictate which members of a family or community make arrangements regarding rituals and bereavement. Distant relatives might travel to be with the immediate family of a deceased person. Traditional practices regarding death and burial might need to be practiced exactly in order to preserve the well being of surviving members and the deceased person. There may be separate rituals for mourners and for the deceased. Sometimes the funeral and burial must be performed immediately to assist with the transition after death. Cremation may or may not be acceptable in some cultures and some groups may bond with the deceased through prayers and gatherings (Rubin, et al., 2012). However, according to David J. Schonfeld at the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, “The fundamental experience of grief is universal,” (2017). If there are variations then, the theme remains the same: death comes to everyone and everyone grieves in some way.

As the United States grows more diverse, practical advice can be found to help parents, teachers, friends, and caregivers respond to people in culturally sensitive ways.  The Missouri Department of Mental Health’s Terrorism and Disaster Center at the University of Missouri makes the following brochure available online in PDF format: Some advice in this brochure includes:

  • Allowing families to grieve in their own way.
  • Using an interpreter, if needed.
  • Identifying important ethnic or faith leaders in the community.
  • Avoiding touch or contact with grieving members, unless invited to do so.

This brochure also provides brief summaries of the family dynamics, beliefs, expressions of grief, ceremonies, and other considerations for the following groups and religions: African Americans, Amish, Arab Americans, Asian Americans, Bosnian Americans, European Americans, Latinos, Micronesian Americans, Native Americans, Somali Americans, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jehovah’s Witness, Judaism, Mormonism, and Santeria. Finally, there is a list of a variety of books that could be ordered to learn more about the concepts of culture and grieving. Similarly, the Coalition to Support Grieving Students provides a video and module summary in which Dr. Schonfeld provides advice for maintaining cultural sensitivity when responding to a grieving person. The following steps are listed in the module:

  • Be observant and perhaps ask, “Can you help me understand how I can best be of help to you and your family?”
  • Listen carefully for the answers and be guided by the responses.
  • Watch out for assumptions. Even if you know a person’s culture or you share that person’s culture, people can be products of multiple cultures. Or, they might reject or accept pieces of a culture to which they identify. Assumptions can lead to stereotypes, which might interfere with opportunities to help.

Once my host mother in Spain had a chance to share her stories, we all ventured into the streets and historic buildings of Seville to view the architecture and tiles influenced by Muslims, Christians, and Jews living there in the 8th through the 15th centuries. The diamond, star, circular, and wavy patterns repeated and changed. They took on new forms, colors and shapes, as did the stories Julita, her sister, and her daughters shared as we walked. If “layers of cultural attachments” are a part of human existence as López recognizes (2012, p. 11), then approaching those who are grieving with “an open mind and heart” (Schonfeld, 2017) may be a pattern worth repeating.

Written By Cecilia Kennedy



Clements, Paul T., Gloria Vigil, Martin Manno, Gloria Henry, & Jonathan Wilks. (2003). Cultural Perspectives of Death, Grief, and Bereavement.  Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services, 41.7, 18-26.

López, Sandra. (2011). Culture as an Influencing Factor in Adolescent Grief and Bereavement.  The Prevention Researcher, 18(3), 10-13.

Missouri Department of Mental Health & The Terrorism and Disaster Center of the University of Missouri. (2014). Cultural Guidelines for Working with Families Who  Have Experienced Sudden and Unexpected Death.  Missouri Department of Mental Health.

Rubin, Simon Shimshon Shimson, Ruth Malkinson, & Eliezer Wiztum. (2012). The Social-Cultural Contexts of Loss:  Considerations for Culturally Sensitive Interventions.  Working with the Bereaved, 187-202. Hoboken, NJ. Routledge.

Schonfeld, David J. (2017). Cultural Sensitivity. USC National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement.

For more resources and help within King and Snohomish Counties, you can also visit the Safe Crossings Program for Children and Teens through Providence Health:

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