Ila Roy of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) spoke with Open to Hope’s Executive Director Dr. Heidi Horsley during the 2015 Association for Death Education and Counseling conferences about the relationship between culture and grief. As a member of the social work team in the clinical centers of the NIH, Roy is placed in the ICU of the hematology/oncology non-transplant branch of the hospital. “I deal, unfortunately, with loss a lot,” she says. When asked about her experience being born and raised in India, and how that may differ from the grief process in the US, Roy says that with so many states and so much diversity, it varies a lot from family to family.

“I really can’t say that there’s one predominant modality,” she explains. “There are also a lot of religious differences.” Being raised Christian in a largely Hindu environment, Roy comes from a church family and community that was well aware of Western beliefs when it comes to loss. “In my community, we went to Christ to understand death and to cope with death. In Hindu communities, it’s quite different.” There are a lot of rituals in Hindu communities that focus around death, and the deceased is often memorialized for several years.

The Ritual of Loss

Roy explains that in Hindu culture, it’s largely the men that take responsibility when memorializing and ritualizing death and grief. There are numerous set prayers for each week, month and year. “The important thing to remember is not to assume anything,” she says. With so many variances, there’s no way to say what’s “normal” in any given culture or country.

Roy recommends that when seeking help, it’s critical to communicate your preferences. What’s your background? What rituals do you want, if any? Those who are listening can then alter and customize approaches to your wishes. It’s your responsibility to teach others how you want to grieve, says Dr. Horsley.

Heidi Horsley

Dr. Heidi Horsley is a licensed psychologist, social worker, and bereaved sibling. She co-hosts the award-winning weekly cable television show and podcast, Open to Hope. Dr. Heidi is an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University, and an award-winning author, who has co-authored eight books, and serves on the United Nations Global Mental Health Task Force. She also serves on the Advisory Boards for the Tragedy Assistance Program, the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation, and Peace of Mind Afghanistan. She served on the National Board of Directors for The Compassionate Friends, and for 10 yrs. worked on a Columbia University research study looking at traumatic loss over time in families who lost a firefighter in the World Trade Center.

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