Grief is tough enough. Add being part of an intercultural family or navigating a globally-mobile life and it gets even more complicated. When loss strikes, no one wants to also manage unexpected guilt or feel unprepared when confronted with cultural expectations that are completely different from your own.
This week’s podcast comes on the heels of having flown across the world to grieve with family. Listen to today’s podcast which explores four phases that can help uncomplicate the impact of loss when it strikes so that you can focus on what is most important.
What You’ll Discover in this Episode:
- Why it is so important to talk about grief in its cultural context before it strikes.
- How to start this unique conversation
- How you can minimize the chaos and confusion as you grieve in an intercultural context
- What most people ignore when it comes to loss
I am breaking through my own discomfort in this episode because some reflection up front can be key to prevent the exacerbation of disorientation and further sense of loss and confusion so common to grief crossing cultures. I don’t want you to carry the weight of both navigating cultural norms around death and grieving at the same time.
Listen to the Full Episode:
Featured on the Show:
- Love Your Friends And Family While They’re Still Alive Episode 64 of Expat Happy Hour
- Don’t miss this brand new opportunity to create connection with yourself, your partner and your family: Global Parenting on Purpose.
Full Episode Transcript:
Welcome to the Expat Happy Hour, this is Sundae Bean from www.sundaebean.com. I am a solution-oriented coach and intercultural strategist for individuals and organizations and I am on a mission to help you adapt and succeed when living abroad and get you through any life transition.
I find the timing of this podcast uncanny. Exactly one year ago I released a podcast about loving your family while alive. We had just lost my dear sister-in-law suddenly to an unexpected illness and this year I find myself back in Switzerland again for another funeral. This time mourning the loss of the matriarch of my in-law family, someone that was such a wonderful and soft landing to Switzerland 20 years ago and has been such a gentle force in our family.
It’s kind of a tough topic to bring up but one that I can’t get off my mind and why I chose to share it in this podcast. It’s about grief. I’ve just flown across the world to be with family and I land in a space of managing my own grief as well as that of the cultural context and this is a context I’ve known for decades.
Grief is complicated enough and then it gets even trickier when we’re doing it across cultures. And I know this topic is a total buzz kill and it isn’t the light-hearted, you know, playfulness that I usually bring to Expat Happy Hour. But I promise you straight talk on expat life and that is why this fits with the topic of global families. If you are living in a global family, in a bi-national marriage, inter cultural context, this is relevant.
For the last six weeks we’ve talked about global families; What do we do when we feel like our kids are getting spoiled? What are the dilemmas that you’re feeling with your in-laws? How can you stop feeling like you’re living in a different country from your partner when you’re really not? And what do you do when you’ve got the dilemma of to stay or go? But we all know that when you are committed to a family that is crossing cultures, whether it be temporary as a rotational expat or long term as a lovepat or a migrant, eventually that phone call is going to come and you’re going to be in a tailspin of grief. It’s complicated when you live abroad because you might lose someone and be struck with regret – wondering whether you did enough to show them that you love them. You might be in a family and there is more than one culture present and now you’re suddenly navigating your own loss and the cultural expectations that are different from what you know.
So today I’m going to ask you to do something that you are likely going to resist. And I say this based on what I know from the research when people are asked about their attitude towards grief and death.
So Cath Brew is probably most known as the person behind “Drawn to a story” but she’s also a specialist of the interpretation of death and cemeteries and in her dissertation research she says, “For many discussing death and dying is an uncomfortable subject and an acceptance of untimely death is unthinkable.” She draws from the research of Gilligan and the article “dying matters” and she says it remains the second most awkward subject to discuss ahead of politics, money, religion and immigration.
And I know what you’re thinking you’re like, “Um, I’m pretty comfortable, I can talk about this.” Right? Because most people, at least in the UK, the studies say that 70% of people feel comfortable talking about death. But their expressed comfort and confidence it’s not always translated into actual discussions and practical planning. Because if you’re like me you would like to deny that death will even happen. It feels either far off or you shut down because you don’t want to think about it. So this is why I’m bringing this up today because although you might think you’re comfortable, the likelihood of you actually translating this into a discussion is much lower and I really want to encourage you to change that today.
So my request to you comes from my heart because I want to support you in minimizing your disorientation and to minimize this further sense of loss and confusion that you have when you are grieving, because if you don’t talk about grief in your cultural context before it happens, then it can be exacerbated. You don’t want to navigate cultural norms thoughts and behaviors and grief at the same time. It is worth doing some of the thinking before it happens so that when you’re thrown into that you’ve got context and you can land where there’s space to land. I’ve seen this in my own life, I’ve seen this in my family, I’ve seen this in my clients lives. This matters. And this is why I am so passionate about this to bring it to you today.
So here’s my invitation: Humor me, consider what you could learn, how you could prepare for the unpreparable. I know that you can’t plan grief, you can’t predict your response. I get that. And I think when we are part of a global family, an intercultural family, a cross cultural context, we need to look at one more layer before grief strikes so that it doesn’t knock us even further off of our feet.
And my invitation to you today is to consider a model we already know, and we’re going to borrow from it and apply it to your situation. So let’s borrow from what we know about emergency preparedness. If you are an expert in disaster preparation or emergency preparedness, this will sound really familiar. The goal of preparedness is to lessen the impact of the disaster on the vulnerable and it happens in four phases:
The first one is mitigation: What you need to do before to minimize the effects? And in this case, it could be the effects of the cultural gaps, the geographic distance, the cultural norms and values mitigation.
Number two is preparedness: What are your plans to handle the situation? What do you need to know? What to expect?
Number three is the response during the situation of loss or grief: How can you put your plans into action so that it actually minimizes distraction from the individual and cultural grief process – your needs and your expectations.
Fourth is recovery: What can you do after? What kind of plans need to be in place after the loss? Because we all know that once loss strikes that the community support tends to dwindle.
Okay, so we’re going to look at these four phases; mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery as a heuristic move on how we can look at grief and prepare, so we can just focus on our process and love our family. And not have to navigate, not have to have the situation even harder than it already is. I’ve been there, I’ve been there for others, others have been there for me, and what I know for sure is that you do not want to be dealing with grief and navigating the cultural confusion and gaps, unprepared at the same time.
So let’s dive deeper, we’ll start with mitigation. Remember mitigation is minimizing the effects and in this case the effects of the cultural gaps that might be there, the cultural expectations that differ. This needs to happen long before an illness or death in the family. And if you are in a relatively new cross-cultural relationship, it doesn’t have to be a heavy conversation. It could just be something like, “Hey, I’m really curious, have you ever been to a funeral? What are funerals like in your hometown? In your family?” You know – what’s expected. What are the traditions? Where the norms? What’s the timing? Do people grieve privately and quietly or are they loud and public? Just get curious and have a conversation and share stories and then you say “Well that’s interesting in my family it looks like this…”
I made a joke to my husband yesterday around how grief looks different in his family and mine because in my family when you walk into my family and we’re grieving, depending on the moment that you catch us in, we could look like we’re at a funeral or a wedding. Because it’s a huge mix of crying and laughing and telling stories and you know drinking wine and just you know, the energy shifts dramatically from high to low and round to quiet and loud at any moment. Whereas in his family there’s a lot more stability. And the tempo and tone tends to stay stable. So with my family, you know, unless you know the context you don’t know if you’re walking in on a wedding or a funeral. But imagine if that knowledge wasn’t shared? What a shock that would be to my partner if he’s used to tone that is stable and then he comes into this wild environment of my family.
So this applies to people who are in binational relationships. What do you need to know? What conversation should you have so that you learn about the family norms? Not even national norms or geographical cultural norms, but maybe even your family culture. This goes for monocultural families as well. What are the norms and behaviors? What are the thoughts and beliefs around death? Because it can really impact how people grieve and how much space you have to grieve in in your way. This is also particularly interesting for people who are second generation, you know, maybe your parent is from let’s say Burkina Faso and you’ve moved to the United States and there are some expectations around what a traditional funeral should be, but you haven’t learned that because you’ve grown up in a different cultural context. Maybe you’re a Third Culture Kid and didn’t get exposed to just one way and now feel unprepared to support in a specific cultural tradition because you’ve just not had the practice or, internship so to speak, on understanding the rituals and expectations.
So let’s let’s dive in a little bit deeper there, we all know that people grieve and feel loss when there’s a death of a loved one, but the ways in which we do it, the way we express our feelings does differ. And it’s super tied to our beliefs, our values, our traditions or rituals. So if you want to prepare in some way then just get curious in a neutral uncharged conversation. You can do research or you can ask someone from the local culture, “Tell me more about how people see death? What happens afterwards? What is their perception about life after death? What happens with their Spirit once they’ve died? How do people believe the roles of the family members should be? How active or distant should they be from the process? Who’s in charge? Is it the one who’s closest to the family member or is it a religious leader?” So before we’re touched personally. It’s great to have that cultural context so that you’re not unprepared when it does strike.
Death creates the sense of chaos and confusion and that’s already the case within one cultural context but crossing cultures these rituals and customs that help give us routine and normalcy might not be the same. So you can ask “Hey, what are the customs when someone passes away?” And then you can explore that before it strikes. How do you care for others as they approach death? Well who’s expected to be present or absent before and after the death? How do people experience grief? Is it loud? Is it quiet, public or private? Is showing emotions a sign of weakness or is wailing appropriate? Is there a difference based on gender or age expectations around grief? How long are family members expected to grieve? And how do we honor the deceased? These are all questions that are worth exploring. You’ll learn so much about the culture and around the family culture and traditions so that you’re not scrambling to understand this when you’re emotionally reeling.
And with all this said we also need to keep in mind that we as individuals hold culture and individuality at the same time. It’s like a dialectic, we are individuals and we are part of a cultural group at the same time. So how people respond in grief varies from person to person. And allowing people the space to experience grief, that is even at odds with cultural norms. Getting to know what is expected, but what is the default from those that you love.
All right, so all of this is about mitigating and I share this is an invitation to just have these conversations before someone gets ill, before you’ve got a loss in your family. One, this is a really interesting cultural question, this is a cultural a way to get into a culture that you don’t access through food or through greetings or through language. It’s a very deep embedded way to access culture and learn, and doing it before there’s any emotions deeply tied to it you’re much more open to take it in. And it’s like creating boxes, so when loss strikes you have boxes to step into. “Oh that’s their ritual, that’s the timing, this is the belief.” And even if the boxes are different from yours, you’ve got categories and you’re going to need structure in the emotional chaos.
So step two is preparedness: So the plans to handle a situation that is the pragmatic part, things that nobody wants to talk about, the what do we do if we get that call? And here’s where your resistance might come up to take the next step of planning. So if you do anything do the mitigation part of the learning, the curiosity, the adding depth and cultural understanding. If you belong to the minority who actually takes the steps to plan, for example; If you have aging parents or you have a loved one who is facing a serious illness, planning and being prepared might be the smartest way and that is where you can look at one’s wishes. And for your partner if they’re losing a parent or if you’re actually talking to the person who is about to pass, understanding what they want and what you’ll do.
This is such a tough topic, this this idea of being prepared. I’m struggling with this because I love to deny death, like it’s not going to happen, it doesn’t exist. It’s not going to happen to me. It’s not gonna happen to anybody love. But I know that’s not true and I know there are some cultural beliefs that if you plan for it, it invites it. So people also shy away from the planning part.
So I don’t want to push here but it is an invitation of “Okay now that you’ve learned something about the cultural ways, how might you need to handle the situation.” So for example, if I’m if I’m someone who cries loudly and let’s my emotions pour out and I’m in a cultural context where things are more private. What does that mean? I know last year I had two funerals back-to-back, as I said my sister-in-law passed away and then a friend of ours passed away two days later. And by the time I got to the second funeral I was so grateful I had already cried for a week, because then I wasn’t going to disrupt the funeral service of my friend or call attention to me when it was really about everybody else in the family. I was grateful that I had that time to like pour all my emotions out in another context at home in a room on my own so that it didn’t come pouring out in a situation where it might have even been disruptive.
So knowing yourself, knowing what you’ve got ahead of you culturally, what are some things that you’ll need to do? Do you need to talk to a friend and say “Listen, you know, you’re going to be my go-to person to call and wail to because I know I can’t do this in my cultural context.” What do you need to do to handle a situation based on your grieving instincts and cultural practices? You might have a cultural practice that is so very different from your partner. It might involve a journey, it might involve specific rituals that you have to plan for. So what would have to be ready so that you can make that happen?
For those of you who are facing aging loved ones, one thing that I know from Cath Brew who is very informed on guiding people in transitions and has experience with that supporting others and interpretation of death. One thing that’s important is that you understand the wishes of your loved ones, because once you understand their wishes you’re not stuck in confusion and second-guessing, whether it would be meeting their needs and that being able to be in alignment with what the deceased would have wanted can give you that sense of peace and grounding that you’re looking for.
Another very pragmatic thing to think about is understanding what our cultural expectations are around burial. I know that when I lived in Burkina Faso, there was a work colleague that passed away and was buried within 24 hours as was in alignment with a cultural tradition. So if you have someone that you love and they pass away in that cultural context and you’re abroad, the funeral could be over before you even have a chance to get home.
I know one of my clients had her parent pass away and wasn’t able to make it back within the traditional burial of 48 hours. Obviously a massive impact on your grief, and if you had known in advance you could at least psychologically prepare for that and create your own rituals to help you with your processing or make an agreement with your family to do things creatively.
So that is preparedness, I’m struggling even sharing this with you because I feel in my gut how hard it is to talk about death, especially preparing for it. Because when I think about my loved ones it is the last thing I want to talk about. And I’m slogging through this because I’ve seen in my own life what happens when you’re not prepared and it can create complications for your family that have an impact for years. Especially those who are in binational relationships. What is going on legally with your partnership? Maybe you’re in a same-sex marriage that’s recognized in one country but not in another, maybe you’re married religiously but not legally. These can have implications, especially if you have children. So again total buzzkill, I’m sorry, but I just believe in it so much that if we do a little bit of preparation and planning it can save massive negative impact. And it’s the same thing of when you’re young and everybody says, “Save now because you’ll be really happy later” And everybody’s saying “Well, I don’t have any money to save so I’ll do it later.” It’s really that wisdom of, if you just take a little bit of effort early on the impact will be exponential. And it’s the same thing when it comes to our global families and this circle of life.
So that’s mitigating and preparation. That’s the invitation I have for you is to have a conversation. I’m not expecting you to print out the transcript and go through it question by question but if you find a moment with your partner to say, “Hey, you know what? I listened to this podcast and couple things came up. I’m really curious…” And then have the courage to initiate that conversation.
The next two steps are trickier because it is about response, which is what you do during the situation of loss and grief and then of course recovering. But let’s look at response.
Responses when you’re in the situation of loss and grief, in your putting your plans into action. The reason why we think about response is how you can minimize distraction from your own grieving process, how you can meet your own needs and expectations around grieving or your own cultural needs around grieving. And I am in the middle of response right now. We are here heading to a funeral tomorrow and I’m navigating that right now, and one of the things I can share with you as a resource is to check out episode 99 of “Three Things You Can Do When You’re Extremely Stressed” And it has to do with extreme self-care, extreme communication and extreme permission. When you are in response mode and you’re feeling vulnerable and wonky about everything you will not go wrong by taking extra good care of yourself.
Giving yourself and others permission to grieve in the way they need to grieve. Or to to lash out, If they need to lash out. Whatever response they have and creating that context of permission and communicating about how you’re doing and what you need will get you far. So response is about what you can do during the situation and I know for me I’ve been in the Swiss cultural context for almost 20 years and I’ve I’ve been to funerals supporting others. I’ve had time to observe how things are, I’ve been in part of the grieving family that was touched intimately. So I’ve had some time to look at when are my needs met and when aren’t they and how can I creatively have that space where I can grieve in a way that feels whole to me without holding back or not disruptive.
So that’s the response phase and this is why the first two phases are so important. If you haven’t had the luxury of years to observe and to test when it’s not so intimate to you, the the first two phases of mitigation and preparation can help lessen that impact.
Then the fourth one is recovery, what you can do after so the disaster has hit, the loss has happened and what are your plans for after the loss? This is when extended grief sets in and we know that the community support dwindles. I was on the phone with one of my best friends from high school and she lost her husband to a sudden illness very early on in their marriage and they had a child. And one of the wisest thing she shared with me from the Pastor after the funeral was that this is not the hard time, he said “The hard time is after that. It’s when everybody goes home, when you get back into your routine, that’s when the grief compounds.” And I’ve had close friends who’ve lost loved ones, and I’ve heard from them that grief doesn’t get easier after time, it actually gets harder in some ways, because you just miss your loved ones even more.
So if you’re grieving what are your plans for taking care of yourself, for reaching out to loved ones to be supported. If you’re supporting others in their grief are you going to be the one who supports when no one else is? Can you make a plan that you check in after three weeks, eight weeks, four months, two years, etcetera, to say “Hey, I see you, I’m sure this is still hard for you.” If you want more guidance on that you can go to Episode 64 Love Your Friends And Family While They’re Still Alive. I’ve got some more insight on that.
All of this is tied to my firm belief of living abroad without regret. Everything I’ve shared with you is in alignment with that intention. I don’t want you to have regrets, I don’t want you to say “I wish I would have – I could have while I had the time.” I want you to love your people while they’re alive and prepare in a way that you can focus on what’s most important now.
I know this is a tough topic, It’s been hard for me to talk about. I know it’s not the upbeat fun-filled episode I usually deliver and I’m still doing it because I believe it’s so important to think about. You know, expat life is not simple and I want to remind you, life alone is challenging enough. Grief alone is challenging enough. Relationships alone are challenging enough. Finding purpose and meaning is challenging enough. But doing that in an international context, in an expat context, that’s like we’re living olympic-level lives people, our challenges our olympic level. And that’s why I want to be by your side through the good times and the bad as you face these olympic-sized challenges. And grief is one of them right? I know this is just the tip of the iceberg. I do not pretend to be an expert on grief at all. All I’m doing today is sharing with you my experience what I’ve seen in my clients’ lives and what I know with hindsight. I can support you so that you can do your work of being present with your loved ones and yourself in times of loss.
Right, and there’s a lot more to your lives than just that we are working hard in our olympic lives as parents, as spouses, as professionals. Trying to take care of our health, taking care of others. Navigating so much and I understand it is hard to find your answers when you’re just overwhelmed with the right next step.
So if you haven’t heard already, please know that I’m opening a group a mastermind for a handful of people to help them lead themselves and their family to be more on purpose in their global lives. It’s called The Global Parenting on Purpose Program. It’s a handful of individuals who are committed to taking a close look in their lives – how they can care more for themselves, be more present with their children, take better care of their health and really lead their family through the transitions that are most important to them.
So keep in mind if that’s something you would love, a crew of cheerleaders and expert insight to help you along the way. We are here for you. Applications are opened and you’ll find the links in this transcript and blog post. I would love to meet you personally have a quick conversation to see if it’s the right fit.
All right, you guys you’ve been listening to Expat Happy Hour with Sundae Schneider-Bean. Thank you for sticking with me on this tough topic. My hope Is that there will be just one of you who listens, has that courageous conversation before anything happens and that that information will serve as comfort and guidance for you in the future.
I’ll leave you with an anonymous quote “Grief is just another name for love.”