Grieving with Africans: How to Support Non-Westerners Through Loss

I was living in Ethiopia when the email came from an American friend: “My African friend is grieving and may have more bad news coming. How do I help her?”

This email came on the heels of a time of grief in our Ethiopian apartment complex: my next door neighbor’s mother who had been living with them died. Soon after, dozens of people started to arrive at my neighbor’s house for “the sitting” (the traditional 3+ days of communal mourning).

The guests filled the small apartment and lined up against the wall in the hallway until there was no room except my front step, so they sat there too, drinking coffee served by female relatives and reminiscing among themselves.

Every hour or so from sunrise to sunset, communal weeping would start again, with one or two voices breaking out of the moaning with high pitched wails. It was heart-wrenching. And then, three days later, the crowd started to disperse.

A week later, my neighbor looked sad but peaceful. Like she had mourned. Like she was spent, in a good way. She had cried it out in community. She had lost her mother, but she knew she was loved by many. This is the African (and, from what I have observed, the Non-Western) way. And there is beauty in it.

But what happens when Africans (or other Non-Westerners) are transplanted to the West, away from their network of support, and then they suffer loss? Times of bereavement are crucial opportunities for the Body of Christ to love the stranger, making sure they know that they are not alone.

Here are a few things I told my American friend trying to love her African friend well during hard times, plus a few more things I wish I’d said. I hope they’ll help you too.

  1. Don’t be afraid of public grieving.

I’ll never forget being in a predominantly white church when an African woman who had been a regular attender for some time broke out into body-contorting sobs. Many in the congregation knew that she had recently lost her daughter who was back in her home country waiting for a visa.

I could see several women exchanging nervous glances, unsure of what to do, while moving towards the woman to envelope her in a gentle group embrace. They stayed like that for quite some time, comforting and praying. And this was exactly the right thing to do.

Don’t be taken aback if your African friend grieves much more loudly and publically than you’re used to. If you take this in stride, you will be helping a healthy process to take place.

  1. Err on the side of being there.

There is a tendency for Westerners to want to tiptoe away from grieving people in order to “give them space.” And this is helpful for many grieving Westerners who do want time to process their sadness in private. But this is not typical of Non-Westerners—when grieving your friends likely do not want “space.” Instead, they want the comfort of closeness, of knowing that they are not alone.

So show up if there’s a “sitting” kind of thing (many cultures do something similar to the Ethiopian custom). Call to say that you are there for them and how can you help? Text to check in every so often.

Remember that in times of grieving, the ache of separation is compounded for many immigrants because they are unable to go home for the funeral (whether because of lack of funds or an inflexible graduate school schedule).

Your commitment to nearness—to just being there—will be a true comfort to your immigrant friend whose network is primarily far away in another country.

  1. It’s hard to go wrong with food.

Flowers, though typically sent to the bereaved in America, will not necessarily be welcomed by your immigrant friends. Food, however, is almost always needed both to feed the bereaved themselves as well as to serve to guests.

So go grocery shopping and ask what you can get them. Make a double batch of your own dinner and bring them some. Sugar, tea bags, and coffee are things that many immigrants will run quickly through when serving guests, so consider bringing some along the next time you visit.

  1. Be honest and ask questions.

None of us want to do the wrong thing when we’re dealing with someone who is grieving, so it’s natural to feel nervous when trying to comfort an immigrant friend whose culture you don’t fully understand. Within reason, feel free to ask questions if you’re unsure about something.

(I think that the majority of cross-cultural confusion comes because people aren’t willing to ask what they consider to be “silly” questions, and they feel it would be awkward to spell things out clearly.)

So go ahead and tell your friend, “I am so sorry to hear that you lost your father. I want to be a good friend to you during this time. Can you tell me how I could help?”

When you offer to do something, you will likely be refused the first one or two times that you ask, so be lovingly persistent: “Will you be serving guests who come to your house? What kind of food and drink do you give the guests? Coffee? Ok, I will buy you some sugar at the store.”

Though cross-cultural confusion is possible at any time (and maybe more so during times of loss), sincere love and care translate beautifully into any culture. Take the risk and stay close to your immigrant friend through the hard time they are facing. They will never forget it, and your friendship will be deeper for it.

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