Chinese Traditions and Widowhood

In Chinese culture, death is often seen as a curse and so words that sound like “death” are avoided as far as possible. The number four is one such word and Chinese generally would not receive well any car registration numbers, addresses or floor levels ending with a four, as they think this may bring bad luck or hasten death in the family. However, there is no empirical evidence of such cause-and-effect.

Nevertheless, we live among and relate with others who hold fast to their traditions and beliefs. These people include their elderly parents and close relatives. Understanding some of their traditional beliefs will help us to be more sensitive to their cultural inclinations when we reach out to care and support Chinese widows after their losses:

  1. To many Chinese, the house in which a person dies is seen as a place that radiates bad energy. In their fear of bad luck, outsiders will not visit or even go near the house for three months.
  2. Bereaved persons are expected to stay away for 49 days, 100 days, a year, or even 3 years, from happy occasions such as wedding and birthday celebrations, while many widows will not even visit the homes of others over the chosen period of mourning.
  3. Discussing family matters including the disclosure of grief to outsiders can be seen as disloyalty or betrayal to the honour of the family.
  4. It is common for Chinese widows to be blamed for bringing bad luck to the family and causing the death of her husband through her fate and bad elements in life. The Chinese old folks generally label widows with stigma and shame.
  5. Traditional Chinese women are socialised to be dependent on their husbands and conform to the identity of a caring wife. Hence, the husband’s death will often threaten her self-worth and purpose in life.

Due to these prejudices, some special attention to address the above areas will be helpful:

  1. It is stressful to have someone die in the family, particularly the loss of one’s husband. If the widow permits, visit her regularly at her home and journey alongside her over the months following her loss.
  2. The widow may want to stay away from her relatives and friends while others will distance themselves from her. Accompany her on leisure or shopping trips and invite her to your functions to reduce her level of social isolation.
  3. Encourage her to process and openly express her experience, thoughts and feelings, not just facilitate the mere venting of her emotions. Assure her of confidentiality and being non-judgemental on your part.
  4. People often want to blame a convenient target for anything negative that is beyond their control. While a widow cannot control what they do, she can choose to forgive them and live without guilt or shame.
  5. Our self-worth is mainly defined by what we think of ourselves. Help her to find the right interpretation of her loss so that she thinks of herself more as a survivor and less as a victim. To improve her perceived sense of competency over her new circumstances, we can help her to learn and master new coping skills.

Ultimately, the widow needs to redefine her source of self-worth from being based on her husband or any significant other to one that is based on the approval of God, who accepts us as we are and not how good we are. His approval is eternal and cannot be lost through death.