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Cultural Considerations: Death

The end of life is a time that is steeped in ritual for many families in cultures all over the world. When your medical or healthcare practice deals with issues relating to death, having an interpreter present can be valuable for more than just pure understanding of your message. An interpreter can be part of communicating care, concern, and the freedom to choose their own path through the grieving process. Here are some ways that careful communication with the bereaved or with a person at the end of his or her life can help ease the process and provide comfort.

Understanding Reluctance to Discuss End of Life

In a variety of cultures, discussing end-of-life care through procedures such as Advanced Directives is not a natural or accepted practice. Asking about or discussing death can create fear and worry, meaning that many cultures make choices in the moment, when end of life is near, rather than through a plan ahead of time. Understanding that this can still result in a meaningful end of life experience is a valuable level of flexibility to have as a provider who works with families and patients experiencing life-threatening illnesses.

Many cultures also prefer the idea of passing away in their homes, surrounded by friends and family, over extensive medical interventions to prolong life after a life-threatening diagnosis is received. It is important to recognize the difference between not understanding the options available that could extend life and understanding but wishing to be discharged to one’s home. These distinctions are often subtle, given that end of life is a time when many people find themselves at a loss for words.

Using Interpretation to Improve End of Life Care

Interpretation services can help you avoid miscommunications with both patients experiencing end of life care and their families. An interpreter can help you understand the cues you receive from the patient and their family about what they want to happen next. It can often be valuable to get to know the person and his or her family first, asking about how they are feeling about their symptoms and their level of family support before trying to ask questions about their wishes. If the patient has also designated a family member to be their intermediary or the person with whom you will speak, it can be very valuable to get to know them as well in order to understand what their expectations of the process will be. Making it clear that you want to hear from them and understand what they are feeling and thinking can go a long way; rather than bottling up frustrations with miscommunications, family members can seek you and your interpreter out for answers and comfort.

Flexibly Respecting The Needs of Bereaved Families

When families lose a loved one, there are often spiritual, religious, and cultural expectations for the handling of the deceased person. It is very offensive to many people to not comply with these rituals, so it is a good idea to help your entire staff understand the expectations for respectful treatment of those who have passed away. As you get to know members of a culture, it is important to do your research in order to be able to ask about what standards or habits are important to them, and what they will need from the hospital or another facility where you work. Your interpreter may be able to help you ask open-ended questions about what the family needs, how you can help them, and what resources or community organizations you can connect them with.

The same deep respect with which we treat all patients and families experiencing a loss should be extended to cross-cultural communication as well; building up knowledge about potential ways to show respect across cultural and linguistic barriers can greatly build trust among communities in your area of care.

ISI Language Solutions is a leading provider of language access for health plans, their providers, and members. To learn more about the services that we offer, please reach out to us at



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