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Cultural and Religious-Spiritual Implications of Grief

Kathryn Patricelli, MA, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Different cultural, religious, and spiritual traditions offer participants in those cultures and tranditions various rituals that have been developed for helping people to cope with death and the grieving process. For example, the Catholic tradition provides for a "wake", which is a visitation period during which family members and other mourners gather to view the deceased and to share memories and condolences. The Jewish tradition similarly provides for an extended period during which family members may "Sit Shiva" and invite family and friends to celebrate and mourn the deceased. Unlike a wake, however, the deceased person's body is not displayed during the shiva period.

girl in cemetaryIndividual preferences also influence how funeral processions are carried out. While many organized religious practices recommend a formal funeral and burial follow initial mourning ceremonies, some people prefer to be cremated instead of buried. Other people find it helpful to make up their own personal traditions and rituals, so that they honor shared values of the lost person and the survivors. Some mourners find it comforting to go through prescribed rituals, while others may find them to feel hollow. If you find yourself in the later camp and find the idea of a formal ceremony to be less than meaningful, keep in mind that rituals are intended more for the benefit of grieving mourners considered as a group than for the deceased, or the needs of any individual mourner. It is important to think of the mourning family's needs overall needs while planning a funeral.

Grieving the death of someone close commonly raises existential questions about the meaning and nature of life and death. Death reminds all thoughtful adults of their own mortality, and the necessarily limited nature of human ambition. People seek answers for their existential questions in a variety of places depending on their backgrounds. Some find answers in scripture, dogma, or simple faith, others may turn to philosophy and other scholarly pursuits, meditation, or art, and still others will seek answers by deepening their relationships with other people and with their communities. Grief recovery is a good time to deepen existing convictions, religious or otherwise, concerning how to make the most of life. It can also a good time to explore new approaches to existential questions that have not previously been considered. Such engagement can deepen your appreciation of life, but it can also expose you to people who would take advantage of your vulnerability, including con-artists, so-called gurus and false or otherwise spirutually corrupt religious leaders. Recall that your judgement tends to not be very trustworthy during times of grief, and do not make binding decisions or agreements while grieving that you cannot reverse later on.