Grief and the Cypriot Identity

Kristina Stamatiou, Art Psychotherapist HCPC Accredited

The society in which we live in still disenfranchises grief. Dr Kenneth Doka has written two anthologies on this and coined the term, disenfranchised grief in 1989. Dr Doka, explains this grief as, “the denial of a mourners right to grieve”, (2001).
I have been wrestling with hidden grief ever since I can remember, or had the language to call it grief. I am a British Cypriot Art Psychotherapist, HCPC Accredited. I am a clinical counselling manager, clinical supervisor, lecturer in higher education and published author. I have been working in the field of bereavement for over a decade now, in one of the UK’s leading children’s bereavement charities Grief Encounter. Our work predominately focuses on Children and Young People’s experiences and journeys with grief. We hope to consolidate a person’s grief by learning together within their bereavement work, how to carve out and adapt healthily into their new lives and identities after the death.
I have learnt that there is an expectation in general placed upon the mourner to somehow have “got over” the death within a certain time frame, even more so if it is not related to the death of a parent, a child or a partner. Society does not recognise the relationship between the deceased and the survivor as still alive. Death and feelings associated with grief still makes people feel uncomfortable. Due to our own discomfort, we end up placing a hierarchy on death based upon societal normative measures. These measures place value on certain deaths being more significant than others. Furthermore, when grief appears to follow the traditional status quo, others accept it and there is somewhat of an understanding placed upon the mourner. To demonstrate this acceptance, we send sympathy cards and flowers, the bereaved can take compassionate leave from work, they/we are seen and our grief is acknowledged, felt and validated. This is not, however, the case for disenfranchised grief.
For example, a simple way in which we disenfranchise grief is that there is a judgement that a grandparent’s bereavement is not significant enough to warrant bereavement leave. Mourners, are met with strange phrases such as “don’t worry they lived a good long life” or “I wish I live as long as they have”. There is an assumed lack of need to talk about the death any further. The problem with this is it involves repression. It stops the griever from sharing their true authentic experiences and feelings. They are dismissed, potentially causing even more harm, which is then further hidden from view. Disenfranchising grief has multiple complex and challenging effects on mourners. Depression, emotional disturbances, withdrawal from relationships, activities and psychosomatic illnesses may emerge, often persisting lifelong. It cuts people from their support systems and they are isolated in their grief, where nobody has access to what they are going through or quite understands their pain.
I currently work at Grief Encounter, supporting Children, Young People and their families who experience the death of someone close, offering help to navigate a lifelong grief journey, which often occurred in tragic and unimaginable circumstances. We work cross culturally embracing similarities and difference within bereavement. Even through this lens of working, we often still find too many examples where grief is disenfranchised. Albeit, an unspoken but nonetheless emphasis is placed on fitting into society, which often takes precedence over one’s heritage and cultural identity. This leaves an inherent lack of confidence in sharing matters outside of what might be considered the cultural norm. An already disenfranchised grief, is further shrouded in shame.
As a British Cypriot mourner living in London, I have first-hand experiences living with the complexities of a Cypriot identity and what this means for a Cypriot Londoner in the UK. I was born to a mother who was a refugee from Cyprus, and a Cypriot father who moved to the UK as an infant. Raised in a traditional Cypriot, working class family, my great-grandmother was a significant influence during my childhood. I was looked after by her until I started primary school, whilst my parents worked long hours in the rag trade. My earliest memories of great-grandmother, “Yiayia” are of her nurturing, yet fierce qualities. She was always cooking; feeding me lentils and pulses, such as Fagi. When I started school in North London, I only spoke Cypriot Greek, unable to communicate to teachers or friends. I had an overwhelming feeling of being different, not quite fitting in or belonging. I remember being drawn to another familiar child of Cypriot heritage. A memory that will always linger, sharing familiar foods and play with someone who I could relate to culturally.
Since those early years, I have learnt that many Cypriots, have an interesting relationship with family, friends and death. The Parikiaki newspaper has been my family’s weekly read since as long as I can remember. I have engrained memories of my grandparents and parents bypassing the first pages and flicking towards the back, to relish upon the announcements of death. They would look at the pictures of those Cypriots, mainly Greek speaking Cypriots, who had died that month. I still remember them, often chatting together and pondering if they knew them, where they lived, what funerals would take place and where. For them, as for many Cypriots living in the diaspora, they would have experienced displacement. With this comes loss. Loss of a home, land, loss of rituals and communities, loss of everything familiar. My family jumping to these pages was an attempt of searching for life in the dead. For them the only way off seeking certainty about the living was to discount them from the dead.
It was fascinating to me that neither fame nor status was related to being in print, especially for those who were displaced. It was as if the publication itself was challenging the hierarchy of death and mourning. As Cypriots, our grandparents pass down their stories, our ancestors’ histories and traditions. When they die, something about our heritage dies with them. I believe we as Cypriots in the diaspora, attempt to preserve our identity and sometimes remain frozen in time, in an attempt to hold on to a past we may feel is further hard to reach. Having said that, Cypriots are also good storytellers. We tell stories that have been passed down from our loved ones and with this comes the continuation of bond with the deceased. Cherished through stories of the deceased, their loved ones hoping generations treasure the same familial roots. We cannot remain frozen in time, nor can we avoid the future. Grief and feelings associated with grief are not linear, grief is permanent and we do not get over the death of a loved one. Instead, we lean to move into a new life whilst carrying the deceased with us. Continuing Bonds Grief Theory, by Klass, Silverman and Nickman, confirms that grief is ongoing and that it is normal to stay connected with our loved ones after death. The theory further suggests that we do not detach from our loved one that has died, we do not leave them behind, in fact, the relationship with the deceased evolves with us as we move through life.
At Grief Encounter, we understand that everyone’s stories are unique – their relationships, memories and families are unique and so their grief is personal. We understand that continuing bonds are an essential part of hope and healing. We hope to consolidate a person’s grief; learning together within their bereavement work how to carve out and adapt healthily into their new lives and identities after the death. We do this by making sure that no element of their story is disenfranchised, or stuck in shame. Western culture tends to rush people along their grieving process; but we understand that everyone has a right to grieve at their own pace. For children who are grieving and who are still developing their understanding of the world, what matters the most is having their grief acknowledged and emotional needs supported. To be proud of their identity in all its layers and make room to express grief either quietly or loudly, whatever speaks truth to one’s own culture and identity.
If you or a person you know is experiencing grief, please contact Grief Encounter on Grief Encounter relies solely on kindness and donations, so if you can or would like, you can donate via our website to continue our mission to help every child through their bereavement.

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