Grief in my culture

(There’s a topic I am completely obsessed with, and I write endless notes about this. As you read the content below, some things won’t really flow because I keep adding on as I go. Sorryaboudit).

Grief as I know it is such a convoluted notion, one that I feel the need to express, in writing, because in reality – its is chaotic.

I’ve grown up seeing and experiencing the process that comes with grief in Samoa. The passing of a loved one and the ensuing events and chaos that follows.

The first funeral I can remember was not my dad. it was of a family member in Sapapalii who my mother used to visit.

For many moments in my young life, I would look at photos of the people who came to my dad’s funeral and search without success in my mind, to remember dad’s passing, but the only vivid memory I have is being forced into my sunday best and then drinking lots of coca cola, some of which ruined the sunday best, but I wasn’t smacked for it.

In my mind, it was a fun day. I suppose for any 3 year old, that would be more fun than a funeral.

But the funerals that followed were different, I remembered most of them and as I grew older, had my own part to play –

because we ALL have parts to play in a funeral. And we all have side we are appointed to, whether we like it our not.


Identity – collective

As a Samoan, we are born into the collective, from day one. We are the child of someone. The grandchild of another. The niece/nephew of the other and so on. In all we do, we are connected, we are answerable to our family. And we are reminded of this constantly, “Remember who you are, don’t bring disrepute to our family etc etc..” But at the same time, it is the family who, in a customary sense, will be there in my hour of need. They are my shelter, which in samoan is called paolo (the shade, away from the glare of the sun).


When I think of family, its such a loaded word, because as a Samoan –  family is many many things. I have my immediate family. I have my extended family. And when we die, this notion of family is most poignant in the power struggles that ensue.

But before I die, let us backtrack to what happens as I grow older as a Samoan, to give you context:

When I get married, I will be handed over (momoli) to my future husband’s family.  My mother’s side will meet, and so will my father’s side. Then, together, the two sides will come together as the family of the bride and pool their resources which will form my contribution or may I borrow from the “dowry” concept briefly but hand it right back because there ain’t gold or silk, but rather fine fine mats, tapa cloth and money, maybe pigs, or cow or in today’s world, corned beef and tinned fish.

A Fine Mat for a life event

Every occasion in my life would have been marked with the weaving of an intricate fine mat. On the day I am born, a fine mat was laid out in celebration.

One the day I am to marry, a fine mat of exquisite quality would have been woven to be taken with me. Later on, when I die, another fine mat will be given, to mark the farewell between me and my husband., Mavaega – Farewell. Oh how final.

From my future husband’s side, he too would have undergone this same process, he too has a mother and father, whose families would have met and would work together to collaborate and pool resources.

At the event of my marriage, the two families will meet and will celebrate – but more so, to declare that they are now connected.

Generally, there should not be any more marriages between my family and that family, because the idea is, the thatch has been broken(ua uma oga gagau le aupolapola), and you shouldn’t break it twice.   But this doesn’t stop it from happening. (But that’s another thesis right thur).

As soon as I am married, my mother or my grandmother, will have already started weaving a fine mat of even more exquisite texture which will be displayed when I bear my first child, who will be the carrier of my family genealogy and his father’s.

He could be chief one day, of my side or his father’s side. Provided both sides have chiefly titles.

And then my husband’s father dies…(this is a scenario fyi)

While I was married, my imaginary husband’s father passes away, and he was the high chief of his village. My parents are informed and they start to seek resources and look to their families for help towards their preparation to respect the deceased. They meet and realise that the funeral is in a few days, so they make decisions such as:

How much money should be given and then divide it among them themselves. They decide $2000 samoan tala will be given and there is 5 chiefs in the fale.  1 chief says he will do the pig and the other will provide the large fine mat. One of the chiefs has a highly paid job in Apia and offers to give $600, which leaves $1500 for the rest to come up with. The most talkative chief in the room will be bullshitting and in the end will only give $50 but will walk away with a lot more. In all this discussion, the wife of the chief, who is my mother, will have been busy hosting the meeting, coordinating the women who are organising the fine mats and actually doing most of the work.

(Thankfully, in reality, my mother is one of the chiefs and she is part of the decision making, but yeah, the above scenario is a hypothetical one drawn from reality haha). 

The next morning, they rise early and catch the bus to the village of the funeral.

They arrive at the place – and their orator (chief who will speak on their behalf) plants his to’oto’o (cane) into the ground, alternate the staff (made of horse’s tail or coconut husk) three times on his shoulder and he will pardon the heavens and ask Tagaloaalagi to welcome this fine chief among his meeting circle.  He speaks with respect and brings gifts on behalf of their child (their daughter) who is married into the grieving family. The grieving family’s chief responds with thanks and gifts them back in respect.

I, as the nofo tane woman married into my husband’s family will be holding my head higher with pride and humility, but mainly pride because my husband’s family are impressed with the presence of my family and their support.

This above is the perfect world —-in reality, many many women, sit and peer out onto the road, looking and hoping that her family will appear and pay their respects. Some don’t show.



When one dies, in another setting, we can go to the florist, buy flowers and a card and give it to them at the service.

When a Samoan person dies in the customary sense, you have to make sure you channel your grief in the right way and ensure you appear on the correct side and in many cases, you don’t just ‘show up”.

The first time I ever had to be responsible to taking a sii (presentation) to a funeral was when my mother was in Apia and she gave strict instructions for my sister and aunt to go. My sister refused to speak, and my aunt is a nofo tane (married into my family), she wouldn’t speak. Thankfully, the family are my grandmother’s side and we have stopped countless times at this house after school to eat before walking home. I was sad and wanted to be among the women but I and my two non talking entourage had a job to do: Offer our sii and do not accept their gift.

Ironically, this is the village renowned in Samoa for their oratory, the very seat of Safotulafai – they are the masters of fine speeches.

Blimmin stressful but it had to be done and the sound of my mother’s voice in my head pushed me to speak up. “Aua e ke palaai”(Speak, Don’t be a coward) haha.

It was the first time I spoke in the presence of chiefs, thankfully, they were a friendly lot and ended up educating me about our genealogy in that area.(After telling me off of course).


Le keige lea ga pele I o makou loko (This girl, who was close/adored in our hearts).

The child versus the grown person

In the passing of a person, no matter how many years they have been on this earth, they remain the child of a family.

When my grandmother died, we had to drive from Tuasivi to our home.

On the way home (which passes two villages), we were stopped several times along the way, by her father’s family and then her mother’s family. Because she is a child of those families. It was surreal and beautiful to view her that way, not just as my grandmother but the beloved child, who at one time walked the path we now drive. As a child.

It’s a wonderful reminder that even as we age, we are still someone’s child, we are still a family’s child. We are, or at least, we were loved at some point in our lives.

What of reality?

We all die. That is the only certainy.

But we now live in a modern world, and our culture is practiced in different ways. The most marked changes have come about because of …money. It has shifted and impacted on our cultural practices.

I find that in so many funerals in Samoa, there is very little time for actual grieving. But a lot more time in organising an exorbitant and large events where everyone who is everyone need to be catered for.

In a family where most are unemployed, it baffled my mind the amount of money that is raised at a funeral.

It always makes me sad seeing the resources committed to the occasion, but which was absent for the living.

Thankfully, many more funerals today are now allowing for actual grieving or more so, the celebration of the persons’ life.

One day, I too will leave this earth and while I absolutely love my aganuu, I want the event to be about life, and the living. Not about exuberance and the huge debt that the living will have to pay.

Thanks for reading my death series – tune in nekk week, for the deadly series, choohooo


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