Different cultures face the loss of a loved one in different ways. Kay Stoker reports on assisting families in Peru to address the issue.

The loss of a loved one is difficult at the best of times. In Peru, most people have no place to talk or process their feelings and are left to get on with it. Even in the Church the attitude is generally one of accepting it and moving on. There is a huge denial of feelings; grieving Christian families are rarely given the space to voice their deepest emotions or questions to God. As one pastor told me, ‘Children should get over the death of a parent in a week.’

There is much stigma and silence surrounding death in Peru. Post-death rituals are part of the grieving process. But after the funeral, the dead person’s clothes are burnt, their possessions removed, and the family expected to move on; conversations regarding the feelings of grief are not encouraged.

Yet in my work with both city and Quechuan Peruvians, I find grieving people desperate for an outlet. We recently ran a training workshop about grief for church leaders from rural Quechuan villages. The Quechuan people are known for being reserved and not displaying emotion, yet the workshop drew out unprocessed grief from years past.

Drawing on the past

When our family arrived in Peru in 2013, my intended role was to develop Sunday school and children’s ministry. God had other plans…

Before Peru, I worked as a church children’s worker in England. I found myself helping several families after the premature death of close family members. It was a steep learning curve and I often felt out of my depth. However, something touched my heart and I embarked on extra training and study. I learnt so much from the families I was working with and from my studies. A UK organisation called Winston’s Wish (www.winstonswish.org.uk) provides helpful resources and proved invaluable in my UK work.

Once in Cusco, families who had lost a parent or child kept coming to me, desperate to find a way to process their grief. Their communities couldn’t help. Clearly, this was a felt need, and God was pushing me back into bereavement ministry. So I returned to Winston’s Wish and another UK charity (Grief Encounter), got further support, and began re-working in this area in a different culture and language.

New hope

Over the past two years, working jointly with a Peruvian pastor and psychologist, we have formed Nueva Esperanza (New Hope). We work in the homes of bereaved families, mainly using therapeutic techniques to help people process the premature death of a family member. We give a voice to the children who are often ignored after the death of a parent, and offer a safe space for the grieving to ask the questions lurking under the surface. We also train church leaders and school personnel in being more aware of how best to accompany grieving individuals.

Bereavement camps

Dave and Kay Stoker lead a bereavment camp in PeruWe hold two-day camps twice a year for the bereaved families (both church and non-church). We go to the countryside and have separate sessions for children, teenagers and adults, plus family activities throughout. Peruvian volunteers give invaluable support, especially in the therapeutic activities. The camps have become a highlight; much of the therapy happens as bereaved families meet and realise that their situation is not unique.

The camp has many activities to help the bereaved children begin to express their emotions. We talk a lot about difficult feelings, especially anger. Validating the anger after the premature death of a parent is key. We help the children to express that anger in a safe and channelled way.

Activities are taken from Winston’s Wish’s camps and adapted. One example is when the children are asked to draw or write something that they are angry towards about the death. We’ve had images of beer bottles, bus drivers and God. Many children cover their paper with writing: getting the thoughts out of their heads helps immensely. Each child folds their paper and sticks it on the wall. We talk about getting rid of the angry feelings inside, and the children have several minutes to throw water-filled sponges at their stuck-on papers. After the activity, one child was so angry that they tore down their paper, ripped it into many pieces and then stamped all over them. The activity had helped to release the anger within. After that, we could talk more openly.

The wider issue

Running these camps and the home-based family therapy is helping people overcome their grief.

But there is the wider issue – getting Peruvian society (and the Church) to better handle bereavement. We are now training church leaders, Sunday school teachers and school personnel in how best to help grieving families. Our training is met with comments like ‘We’ve needed to hear about this for so long’ and ‘We’ve never received training on this before!’ We plan to develop the work more officially in schools and in hospitals, working alongside medical staff.

Changing the mindset of a culture is a slow process but we’ve begun.

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