Tellus: (tel’us), n. 1. [Latin] earth, soil, and the land; a country; the world. 2. a collection of Willamette University student’s insights, stories, photos and thoughts from their experiences studying abroad.

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Greiving Across Cultures

While I was studying abroad in Japan, a Japanese friend of mine living back in the States committed suicide. My sorrow was too intense to describe. I could not handle being abroad at that time; I felt that I should be back in America, grieving at the site where he passed away and comforting others who had known him. The Office of International Affairs at Tokyo International University asked us not to talk about it too much with the Japanese students, fearing they’d become depressed. But I couldn’t help but reach out to a few of my closer Japanese friends. I needed, for myself, to let them know that my life had been changed forever. And, looking for reasons why my friend might have taken his own life, I wanted to put his death in the cultural context of his home country. I thought that it might explain everything.
Unfortunately, I was not to find much satisfaction. The first friend I told surprised me with what I perceived as his coldness. When I consulted him, he said, “Yeah, I heard. But try not to talk about it too much. It’s not good for you.” And then he quickly walked away. I was hurt and puzzled by his behavior. He had always been willing to listen before. Why not now?
The next person I tried to talk to was my host mother. I told her less because I thought she could provide me with comfort or answers, and more because I thought she deserved to know why I was always crying and acting so strangely, but nevertheless her answer upset me even more than my friend’s did. She said, “Oh, that’s too bad, but you really should stop crying or your friend won’t be able to go up to Heaven.” These words just made me cry even more.
After these first two incidents, I gave up my search for the cultural key to my friend’s suicide, and started searching for one to the attitudes about my friend’s death that I had encountered so far. Since coming to Japan, I had seen many seemingly casual reports of suicide in the news, and observed that train-track suicides that delayed transportation were met not with shock, but with complaints about the nuisance. I began to the responses I’d received up to a culture made callous by a high suicide rate. How tragic, I thought, that an entire people can be so desensitized.
From this point, I made some pretty stupid decisions. I thought that since I didn’t have an outlet for my emotions, I’d just hide them like everyone seemed to want me to. I went out on a Friday night and did dinner and karaoke with friends, trying to laugh and smile the whole time. On the way home, I had an emotional breakdown. A concerned Japanese friend asked me what was wrong, and when I shakily explained to him what had been going on, he admonished me for not telling him sooner, and told me to come to him whenever I needed to talk about it. I was both shocked and grateful.
In the end, the lesson I learned from this experience was that sometimes the differences that seem like they should be cultural are really just differences in individuals. As it turned out, the friend I had gone to first had acted avoidant like he did because he had never experienced death before, and didn’t know how to comfort me. My host mother said what she did because of the way she processed her own tragedy: her mother had died when she was very young, and the words she said to me were the same ones that her father had told her. The friend who ended up comforting me, however, had lost friends and family before, and gotten past it, so he knew that I needed an outlet for my grief and felt willing and able to help. In the end, some differences and similarities are about the experiences we share as humans, not as part of a particular culture.

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