Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Most contemporary writing about grief and mourning is based on research with people living in twentieth-century North America and Western Europe. The research uses theories and methods that grew from the same geographical area and historical period. Although reports about mourning and grief have come from many cultures, there is no consensus among bereavement scholars about what concepts explain the most about the ways in which individuals and communities respond to death in different cultures. The question here is: How might scholars develop more cross-cultural concepts of grief and mourning that can describe the thoughts, emotions, interpersonal interactions, myths, and rituals that follow significant deaths in other times and places?

Grief Varies with Culture

Cross-cultural study looks outward, seeking an opening to the varieties of cultural expression around the world; but it also looks inward, because an understanding of others can enrich our understanding of our own culture. All people are shaped to some extent by the culture into which they are born. The human expression of grief is no less a product of culture than marital or religious customs or symbols.

Many writers make a distinction between grief and mourning, saying that grief is a subjective state, a set of feelings that arise spontaneously after a significant death, whereas mourning is a set of rituals or behaviors prescribed by culture's tradition. In this distinction, thought, or cognitive meaning, is largely absent from both grief and mourning because the former is mostly feelings and the latter mostly action.

But this distinction between grief and mourning does not hold up to cross-cultural scrutiny. The concept of grief is an artifact of modernity. Grief as a real subjective state grows from a culture that prizes and cultivates individual experience. There is no equivalent to the term grief in some other languages; indeed, in some cultures, as in Japan, the concept of emotions that are only in the individual seems foreign. For the Japanese, individual identity is a function of social harmony. Emotions are part of family or community membership, sensed among the members so as to create a harmonized atmosphere.

The term mourning does have a Japanese equivalent, mo, which refers both to the ritual responses to death and the emotions—commonly defined in the West as "grief"—that attend them. Hitan, the Japanese word that comes closest to the English word grief, means "sadness and sorrow," but the word does not imply that the emotions were brought about by death or loss. Hitan cannot be used in a way that refers to a self-evident inner reality. One translation into Japanese of the English phrase "She was in grief" might be " Kanojyo-ha hitan no naka ni iru, " ("she grief of inside being there"), but that is not a complete sentence. A complete sentence might be " Kanojyo-ha hitan ni sizundeiru. " (She grief to sinking.) An infinitive like "to sink" is needed because in Japanese Hitan cannot be a complete state on its own. With no Japanese word available, writers introducing Western psychological ideas have transliterated grief as guri-fu. A rather simple bit of cross-cultural research is to ask how the English concepts of grief and mourning are translated in other languages and to look at how different words may change the way people might think about grief.

Grief As an Instinct

At the biological level it might seem that grief is universal. In every culture people cry or seem to want to cry after a death that is significant to them. Grief, then, could be conceived as an instinctual response, shaped by evolutionary development. Perhaps animals grieve. Primates and birds display behaviors that seem similar to humans' in response to death and separation. Instinctual response in this sense is a meta-interpretative scheme programmed into our genetic inheritance, much as nest building or migration is hard-wired into birds. The response is aroused by the perception of specific situations (i.e., harm, threat, success or failure, and breeding opportunities). Culture, of course, influences how people appraise situations, yet similar perceptions of events trigger similar instinctual responses. A significant death, then, might be regarded as a universal trigger of grieving emotions, although which death is significant enough spark such a response depends on the value system of a particular culture. Universal instincts, then, might provide the basis for concepts that could explain behavior in all cultures.

The model of grief based on the attachment instinct, propounded by John Bowlby and his followers, has generated a large body of research and advice for clinical practice. In this theory, a significant death triggers a response much like that which a child feels upon separation from his or her mother. First the child protests and tries to get back to the mother. Then the child despairs of returning to the mother but remains preoccupied with her. Finally the child loses interest in the mother and is emotionally detached from her upon her return. Grief after a significant death, this theory holds, follows the same preprogrammed sequence of behaviors. Attachment is instinctual behavior that has survival value because it keeps the child in close proximity to the mother for protection from predators. Humans are attached to individuals all through their lives. When they die, individuals

In Calexico, California, mourners attend the memorial service for a United Farm Workers (UFW) migrant worker who was killed at a lettuce farm during a strike to protest working and living conditions for migrant farmers. This kind of death may trigger questions for survivors, such as what does my life mean now that the person is dead? And what hope is there for our community? STEPHANIE MAZ/CORBIS
In Calexico, California, mourners attend the memorial service for a United Farm Workers (UFW) migrant worker who was killed at a lettuce farm during a strike to protest working and living conditions for migrant farmers. This kind of death may trigger questions for survivors, such as what does my life mean now that the person is dead? And what hope is there for our community?
experience separation and loss, and so must reorganize their attachments to match the new reality. From observation one knows that human children develop different styles of attachment, depending on the mother's bond with the child. Some bereavement research indicates that attachment styles in childhood predict bereavement style in adulthood. Attachment theorists have claimed that attachment is biological and, though influenced by culture, nonetheless functions similarly in all cultures; therefore, attachment theorists claim, the attachment instinct undergirds a cross-cultural model of grief.

But attachment alone is not a sufficient basis for a meta-interpretative cross-cultural comparison. First, there is little cross-cultural research on attachment: "Core tenets of attachment theory are deeply rooted in mainstream Western thought" (Rothbaum 2000, p. 1094). Until experts can specify which attachment behaviors of parents and children are universal, which are cultural, and how both universal and cultural attachments behaviors are observed in grief, a cross-cultural theory based on attachment remains elusive.

Moreover, the template used in attachment bereavement theory is young children's responses when separated from their mothers. In grief, the theory holds, adults are all like children seeking reunion with the deceased person. The theory does not consider that as people mature their attachments become broader. The young child knows himself only in relationship with the mother. As the child matures, each level of social membership or identity is also an attachment (e.g., clan, village, tribe, nation, religious tradition). At each level, separation becomes a less plausible explanation for grief because attachments to individual people become interwoven with social systems and cultural meanings that cannot be reduced to biological inheritance. In the individualistic culture of the modern West, with its eroding attachments to larger social systems, primary social relationships are limited largely to monogamy and the nuclear family. Such individualistic relationships approximate but do not duplicate the mother-child bond, so the latter is of limited value in explaining the former.

Death may arouse instinctual responses other than those that are labeled "grief" in Western culture. Some deaths in Western culture, for example, arouse a trauma response. It may be that the trauma response is as universal as the separation response in attachment. Trauma and loss are different meta-interpretative schemes. In the West, some deaths are traumatic; some traumas are not death; and some deaths are not traumatic. In modern Western culture, rape evokes a response similar to that of a traumatic death. Other cultures may have meta-interpretive schemes that apply to death (revenge, submission, and so on) but may not apply in the modern West. In traditional Chinese culture, for example, death presents the problem of pollution. One of the purposes of funeral rituals was to protect men from pollution while women took the pollution on themselves, thereby purifying the deceased for the next life. Whatever metainterpretative schemes, other than mourning, are aroused by death, or by a particular death, would seem to be culture-specific, though the emotions aroused would be similar to those aroused when the meta-interpretative scheme was evoked in other circumstances. Death presents pollution or powerlessness in some cultural contexts as much as it presents separation, loss, and sometimes trauma in the modern West. As scholars develop a cross-cultural theory based on instincts, they will need to give as much attention to other instincts as they have given to attachment and trauma.

At a symbolic and metaphoric level, death is used to understand other realities in human life. One way to identify the instincts evoked by death might be to investigate a culture's use of death as a metaphor. For traditional Chinese women, for example, death was like marriage. In the West the concept of grief is applied to other separations and losses, such as divorce, and to other traumas, such as home invasion. Clearly the meanings ascribed to death in all cultures are not limited to separation, loss, and trauma. Students who are familiar with another culture might ask, "On what other occasions are themes from bereavement applied?"

Grief As Finding Meaning

Beyond instinctual responses lies the realm of thought or meaning, which has been excluded from many definitions of both grief and mourning. When a significant person dies, the issue of meaning is central for the survivors: What does this death mean? What does this life mean? What did this person mean to me and to this community? Western individuals who successfully come to terms with a traumatic death may change how they think about themselves, how they relate to others, and how they view life in general. Changes experienced by individuals in other cultures might be just as wide-ranging but cover spheres not experienced in the West.

The task of meaning making is done in the interchange between the individual and the culture. An individual seeks to make sense of his or her experience using cognitive or mental models that are supplied by that individual's culture. When modern Western people look at sickness, for example, they see it in terms of germs and viruses. People in other times and places might have seen sickness in terms of witchcraft or magic. The movement between cultural models and mental models goes in both directions. Cultural models are objectifications formed over time from the inner experiences of a group of individuals in a community. Cultural forms, including models of grief, change as individuals in the culture accommodate their cognitive models to make sense of the deaths in their lives. Cross-cultural research in grief, therefore, may include studies in the same culture at different times in order to understand the factors that influence the changes.

The constructivist model grounds grief both in the interplay between cultural meaning and individual meaning and in concrete interpersonal relationships. By contrast, in attachment theory, the purpose of grief is to reconstruct the autonomous individual, who, in large measure, leaves the dead person behind in order to form new attachments, which he or she accomplishes by working through and resolving negative feelings. Grief is conceptualized as an innate process that, if allowed to run its course, will bring the survivor to a new equilibrium in a changed world that no longer includes the dead person.

In the constructivist model the purpose of grief is the construction of durable biographies—individual and social narratives—of the dead person and of the survivors that enable the living to integrate the dead into their lives. Narratives are stories. People make sense of their lives by telling a story that makes sense of their past and present experiences. Whether they are aware of it or not, people have an autobiography that they are constantly revising in light of new experiences. If something like an important death does not make sense, it is "nonsense." Both individuals and societies want to keep seeing the world the same way, but sometimes death forces one to see the world differently. When an individual sees the world differently, he or she constructs a new narrative, a new biography of themselves and of the person who has died.

In the constructivist model, the process by which people make sense of their world is social interaction. When something important happens in individuals' lives, they do not just think about it; they talk about it with others. Grief and mourning do not just happen inside a person; they happen in the interactions between people. In most cultures over human history, myth and ritual provide the intersubjective space in which one can construct the meaning of the deceased's life, death, and influence over the survivors' lives. In contemporary Western culture, in which rituals and myths from earlier times have fallen into disuse, intersubjective space is characterized by informal verbal and nonverbal interaction aimed largely at communicating shared meaning. Often people see contemporary communities constructing their narrative by inventing new rituals that allow community members to feel a sense of togetherness.

Narratives, of course, are maintained within different kinds of social systems. Differences in mourning behavior might be attributable to structural differences in societies. It appears that mourning in small, closely knit societies is different from mourning in large, more loosely knit societies in which primary membership is in the nuclear family. In small networks such as a rural village, members identify with people outside the nuclear family. When someone dies, people find substitutes for the deceased in their immediate social environment. For example, many adults already care for a child in a small network, so when a parent dies, other adults can easily move into the parent role. Death disrupts the social structure of small networks, so mourning rites focus on rehabilitating the damaged role system by reallocating roles. For example, when the elder dies, someone must be moved into the role of elder. In more complex, loosely knit networks, such as in an industrialized city, most individual deaths do not significantly affect the larger social system, so grief loses any larger social meaning and becomes a matter of individual family and psychic readjustment. As scholars move toward cross-cultural concepts, they might study grief in villages and cities in the same cultural tradition before asking whether or how grief and mourning are different in different cultures.

Each level of social system maintains narratives—individual narratives, family narratives, community narratives, media narratives, subculture narratives, and cultural meta-narratives. Each level of social membership is also a kind of attachment. Narratives from higher-level systems provide the materials from which the narratives at lower levels can be constructed. The narrative at any level is constrained by the structure of the level or levels above it. For example, the narrative in the family limits the narrative in individual constructs, and the narratives of the culture and religious traditions to which the family belongs limit the family narrative. Contemporary Western culture evinces a relative freedom of the individual from the constraints of cultural narrative. The price individuals pay for such freedom is a sense of inner loneliness that sociologists call "anomie." One point of cross-cultural comparison is the degree of cultural or religious narrative constraint on individuals and families in their attempt to form their own meaningful response to a significant death.

Constructivist theory allows a definition of relative "normality" of grief within various cultural contexts. When the narratives are congruent within and between levels, grief may be stressful, but is not problematic. Grief becomes problematic when there is an incongruence of narratives within a level (e.g., an individual who is unable either to accept or reject contradictory stories). Did she die because it was God's will or because the doctor made a mistake? Grief also becomes problematic when narratives at different levels of the hierarchy are incongruent (e.g., when individual's thoughts and emotions are incongruent with the family's understanding of what thoughts and expressions of emotion are acceptable).

A community's grief becomes problematic to itself when there are contradictory or incongruent narratives, such as when there is a disagreement about whether the high school students who kill themselves after they have killed other students should be memorialized along with those whom they killed. A community's grief becomes problematic to other communities when the narratives are incongruent; for example, a gang's revenge narrative can be in conflict with the larger culture's narrative of the "rule of law" in which only the state can define and punish wrongful death.

The Grief Police

When an individual and family grieve within larger social narratives, larger political dynamics are in play. Society polices grief; it controls and instructs the bereaved about how to think, feel, and behave. All societies have rules about how the emotions of grief are to be displayed and handled. In some cultures, for example, those who grieve should talk to the dead, and in other cultures the name of the dead should never be spoken. Such coercion is, of course, a top-down matter. Those who do not conform to the social expectations are labeled aberrant. In contemporary psychotherapeutic culture, aberrant grief is deemed pathological. In other cultures the labels would be different—counterrevolutionary in communist cultures, sinful or idolatrous in monotheistic religions.

One cross-cultural project seeks to compare the rules about the emotional expression of grief. Anthropologist Unni Wikan, for example, compared the rules in Egypt and Bali, both Islamic cultures. She found that in that in Bali, women were strongly discouraged from crying, while in Egypt women were considered abnormal if they did not incapacitate themselves in demonstrative weeping.

When people understand that every society polices grief, they can use several cross-cultural studies that are otherwise misleading. The most common mistake in cross-cultural study of grief is to confuse the official worldview of the culture, its dominant mythology or theology, with what individuals in the culture actually do. Research on grief and mourning is descriptive: people describe what they do, but official theologies are prescriptive—they dictate patterns or norms of behavior. In the cross-cultural study of grief, it will not do simply to explicate the beliefs of the culture's religious tradition as if those beliefs described the lived experience of individuals and communities. The stated beliefs of a culture are often the rationale for the rules by which grief is policed; they are often merely the directives for public performances that may or may not really express the mourners' private thoughts and feelings. If individuals understand the cultural basis of their own prescriptions, they will be better able to describe the cultural basis for prescriptions in other times and places.

The distinction between descriptive and prescriptive becomes somewhat muddy in contemporary Western society because psychology and sociology are the contemporary forms of myth. Often research hypotheses are drawn from cultural prescriptions, and researchers' findings pass quickly into popular culture as prescriptions and directives. It is common for those who do research on grief to find their descriptions of grief turned into counsel given by therapists and media personalities. Students might study grief in American culture by doing a serious analysis of the advice given on television talk shows; bilingual students could compare advice given on English and non-English language stations.

A potentially useful direction for the cross-cultural study of grief might be to compare rules about grief and to analyze how the prescriptions on grief coordinate with other prescriptions. For example, students could look at the rules for expressing grief as part of the rules for being a man or a woman. In traditional China, women wailed laments but men sat silently. A fruitful topic might be an investigation into the rigor of a culture's rule enforcement (e.g., the severity of the penalty, if any, that a weeping man would face in a culture that discourages male crying).

Continuing Bonds with the Dead

The resolution of grief often includes cultivating bonds of emotion and meaning with the dead. In other words, people who are important to us become part of our inner conversation and remain there after they die. If someone says, "I would not do that because my mother would be disappointed in me," the mother is part of that person's inner conversation even though the mother is not present and may never find out if the person did it or not. People who are important to us may continue to play important roles in our lives and in the life of the community for many years after they have died. Throughout history this kind of persistent communion with the dead is a recurring behavioral pattern, far more common than an outright severing of all bonds. Indeed, Western psychologists and psychiatrists became interested in individual grief—the ways in which survivors live on after a death—precisely at the time when the cultural narrative about afterlife had begun to wane.

If students use continuing bonds as the focus of cross-cultural study, relatively straightforward methods can yield data that are useful in a comparison of the roles played by the dead in individual lives and cultural systems. Historian Ronald Finucane traces changes in Western history from ancient Greek culture to the present in various areas: how the dead appear to the living, what the dead want from the living, and what the living ask of the dead. Comparisons can be made between the changes in the relationship of the living and the dead during the mourning period.

Continuing bonds with the dead in individuals and families become integrated into the collective representations that mediate the culture to the individual. Emile Durkheim, one of the founders of sociology, said that collective representations play a major role in developing social solidarity and identity in tribes, ethnic groups, and nations. Grief and the rituals of mourning install the dead into collective memory as well as into the individual memories of those who knew them. The memory of soldiers who die in war, for example, are evoked during patriotic celebrations in every culture. Grief then takes on a political meaning because one of the functions of all cultural narratives is to uphold the legitimacy of those who hold economic and political power. Only a few centuries ago, cultural narratives said that kings ruled by divine right. Twenty-first-century narratives say that presidents rule because they are elected by the people. The political question is, however, which collective narrative controls the continuing bond with the dead? To what end or in whose interest is grief policed? In Chinese ancestor rituals, the dead remain part of the family, defining the values by which the family lives and creating the shared identity of the living members of the family. The memories of martyrs energize living people who believe in the ideas or causes for which they died. A fruitful area of student study might be an analysis of the political, historical, or cultural meaning of deaths in which the grief is shared by the wider society, not just by family members.


The cross-cultural study of grief can apply to many levels of human life: at the biological level, the instincts aroused by a significant death; and at the linguistic level, the meanings and usage of the words that refer to what people call grief and mourning in the West. In the interchange between individuals and culture, grief and the resolution of grief happens in a series of nested cultural narratives—family, clan, tribe, community, subcultural, nation, religious tradition, and so on. At each level those narratives supply the plots for the construction of individual narratives that endow grief with meaning and manageability. Grief interacts with every level of this hierarchy, from family patterns to political legitimacy.

See also: Afterlife IN Cross-Cultural Perspective ; Continuing Bonds ; Death System ; Grief: Theories ; Mourning


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