Written by Dr Georgia Rowley, Research Associate, Research Centre for Palliative Care, Death and Dying.
Australia has a rich history of migration, with specific migrant cohorts ageing at different rates. 67% of Australia’s Greek population are aged over 65. For many, life-course and migratory experiences and notions of ‘ageing in a foreign land’ have impacted later life wellbeing.
There is a dearth in bereavement and widowhood gerontological literature from an ageing migrant perspective. Cumulative disadvantage and marginalisation places migrants at particular risk, contributing to vulnerabilities and health risks in older age. Culture and religion can impact the experience of bereavement and widowhood for older adults.
I spoke with 39 older community dwelling Greek migrants in urban and rural South Australia about their experiences of bereavement. Interviews were in their native language, to be inclusive of non-English speakers who are traditionally excluded from research. Despite the sensitive subject, the group openly shared their experiences around death, mourning rituals, customs and traditions, continuing bonds to spouses, and changes to identity and socialising in widowhood.
There was a sense of fatalism around widowhood, with spousal loss described as devastating and life-changing. Grief and bereavement were often ongoing. People often dreamed of or talked to their spouses. There were visible and performative signs of mourning for Greek widows, including wearing black clothes. These acts were highly normative, with women keenly aware of perceived societal judgement if they did not abide by these norms. Some expressed that they felt wearing black to be depressing or bad for their health, but persisted largely due to fearing potential community or familial criticism.
Funerals typically involved a church ceremony (often with an open casket), followed by a burial and wake. There were often frequent cultural and religious memorials observed, with many occurring within 40 days and one-year post-death. There were frequent cemetery visits involving the lighting of religious candles and incense. Future familial events were often purposely muted for some time, with music and dancing on hold as an act of respect.
There was a strong notion that marriage continued in widowhood. Continuing bonds, perceived as socially normative within Greek culture, were often upheld, even years post-death. Bonds fostered a sense of closeness to deceased spouses. There was an awareness that continuing bonds are not traditionally normative among Anglo Australians, and a perception that there existed vast cultural differences in grief, mourning and bereavement, with participants frequently comparing their experiences to Anglo Australians.
Spousal loneliness, depression, sadness, feeling alone or isolated in widowhood were rife. Happiness was primarily associated with having one’s spouse, rendering happiness in widowhood harder to attain. One man said: “There is no hope. Something tortures him. . .Women and men, it’s the same thing. . .when you lose your spouse, at old age, it’s [hard]. . .Life is a routine. . .finished. . .There’s nothing else”. Widowhood signalled typically negative changes to identity, daily life, support and social participation. One woman highlighted this: “Greeks, when we lose our spouse, no one steps foot in our house. . .We mourn continuously. . .”.
Being coupled was perceived superior to being widowed. Widowhood was stigmatised, representing a lengthy, all-encompassing experience, central to daily life and sense of identity. Most interviewees appeared to passively accept their daily lived realities, exerting little or no agency to change. There existed a belief or sentiment that ‘moving on’ was rather unattainable in older age. Among this group, there appeared to be somewhat of a fatalistic approach or overwhelmingly negative attitude to widowhood, resulting in a seeming denial of any potentially positive aspects. One man reported: “It’s all Greeks, all of us. . .People are all the same when they are widowed, the same routine. . .There is no happiness. The happiness I had with my wife doesn’t exist now”. Socialising in widowhood generally declined due to gendered norms and expectations and related stigma within Greek culture and the community. One woman said: “When you lose your spouse, your life ends and your house closes. . .You are alone. You can’t go anywhere. . .Life has changed”.
Experiences of death and bereavement are impacted by culture and religion. Preferences around rituals, traditions and customs must be acknowledged and respected in line with person-centred approaches. Widowhood often remains pervasive across all aspects of life regardless of years widowed for older Greeks. The largely detrimental effects of widowhood are arguably intensified among non-English speakers, who are typically at an added disadvantage in older age.