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Grief and Loss as Viewed from a BIPOC Cultural Lens

Cultural support can be a critical part of the grieving process.

I grew up on the beautiful island of Jamaica in a small village community called Mount Charles in the parish of St. Andrew. My grandmother lived close by, and I would visit daily. I loved her for her gentle and generous spirit; as a little girl, she would teach me many things. At the time, I thought my grandmother was just a vegetable farmer and homemaker. Reflecting, I can see that her role in the community was much greater—and that she had a role to play in the community’s processing of grief and loss. 

People would talk to her across the fence, invite her to their homes when their family members were sick and dying, and ask her to attend the funerals. I resented at the time having to accompany her on these visits and outings. But while I was there, I would observe, I would feel, and then I would reflect on the day with my grandmother, and she would educate me on the intricacies of death and dying. Though I didn’t know it at the time, in this way my understanding of life and loss was heavily influenced by my culture. 

As a clinical counselor, I consider the research, which tells us that grief, loss, and mourning are all typical human experiences that are both complex and intense (Engel 1964, Harder 2018). Harder defines grief as “the normal package of emotions accompanying the loss of something or someone valued.” However, the author notes that grief is a complicated process: While “normal grief” is culturally influenced and can change over time, “complicated grief” could include “traumatic reactions, preoccupation with the loss event, issues of isolation, self-blame, and persistent distress.”

People who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) often have strong communal ties while grieving, despite the cultural differences in the exercised rituals. When someone lacks this community support or is unable to carry out or participate in cultural rituals, this could turn normal grief into complicated grief. 

To understand how, here is how Engel observed the process of grief in hospitalized patients: 

Stage 1: Shock/disbelief. “This initial phase is an attempt to protect oneself from the overwhelming stress that could be evoked by the loss.”

Stage 2: Developing awareness. People become consciously aware of the loss and report feeling a sense of emptiness in their chest. Some may exhibit anger and self-blame. “It is during this period where the greatest degree of anguish and despair, within limits imposed by cultural patterns, is experienced and expressed.”

Stage 3: Restitution. This stage includes the process by which families perform mourning rituals, which helps to initiate recovery. This process helps the family or individual acknowledge the loss and accept support. The rituals allow for no ambiguity regarding the loss.

Stage 4: Resolving the loss. After the rituals, individuals process the loss in various ways while reflecting on the void left by the person or thing. During this time, the person’s thoughts are preoccupied with views of the person or thing in an idealized way.

Stage 5: Idealization. During this last stage, the mourner’s loss lessens over time as they think about positive traits from their experience with the person or thing. The emotional triggers are reduced, the person begins to return to focus on the present life around them consciously, and the interest for new relationships increases.

You can see in the stages above how important cultural and community factors are in the grieving process. Engel’s stages of grief are not linear, so we don’t experience each step one after the other; each of the five stages can be experienced at a different time while grieving. And each person grieves differently based on their emotional connection to the person or thing. Their family sub-culture and wider ethnic culture also contribute to their mourning process, including how long one mourns and how emotions are expressed during the mourning period.

As a child, I witnessed the above stages of grief play out with families when I visited them and went to funerals with my grandmother. Once families gained awareness of the loss, the process switched to planning the celebration of life for the deceased and an outpouring of financial and emotional support for the family. The community came together and donated food and planned a wake to happen the night before the ceremony. The next day, people attended the funeral to show their respect for the family and share fond memories in honor of the person. Days and weeks after the funeral, the community may have arranged to visit with the family, offered to complete work tasks around their home and farm, and brought food to share with the family while they continued to grieve. Over time, less support was provided as the family returned to life as it once was.

These are my cultural experiences of grief and death from the community in which I grew up. These types of cultural behaviors can be a critical part of the grieving process, and without this cultural support for death and loss, the normal grieving process can be interrupted. As a clinical counselor, it is important to me to help my clients—especially those who are BIPOC—to validate the importance of cultural grief processing when they are faced with the loss of something or someone they valued. 

Tricia-Kay Williams

Tricia-Kay Williams is the owner of Metamorphose Counselling and Consultation Ltd where she focuses on providing therapy to emerging adults who are navigating life, career or relational transition. Tricia has a MA in Counselling Psychology from Adler University and is passionate about diversity, equity, and inclusion work. Tricia hosts a Youtube channel and Podcast called Meta Transitions and provides consultation for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in higher education. Tricia is a therapist on the Modern Health platform.