Collective Grieving

Krystal M. Chuon
3 min readNov 2, 2021


Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash

One can say I’ve been around grief all my life, by way of my parents. Their trauma stemming from the genocide and war often found its way through unplanned, emotional (sometimes funny) verbal stories and stern life lessons. I’m not sure if my parents have ever been able to thoroughly grieve, having been thrusted into survival mode for much of their lives starting from Cambodia, through their time spent in Khao-I-Dang refugee camp, and then in the States. I wonder about prolonged grief disorder described as a “pathological inability to recover, adjust, accept and, ultimately, let go” and intergenerational grief.

In America, grieving is often viewed as an individual process. In Khmer culture, it’s a familial/communal process. There’s bangsokol, a ritual for souls of those who have passed to be reborn in a better place, Bon Pchum Ben, a 15-day ceremony to honor and remember seven generations of ancestors, and a few others. Rituals like these enable not only collective grieving, but also collective healing, acceptance or understanding of loss, space to acknowledge feelings, and so on.

This past October, my cousin lost her battle with cancer. Having just seen her and family in Boston during the summer, it all felt so surreal flying back to plan her funeral with my sisters and brother-in-law. The spaces of which she once occupied felt lonelier, quieter — even unfamiliar at times.

A few days after the funeral, we held a bon/bangsokol at a Cambodian Buddhist temple located in Lynn. I carried her urn and others carried in our ceremonial offerings all neatly placed in a round plastic tub along with a framed photo of her. Inside the tub were various items like shampoo, incense sticks, and cans of condensed milk. We were later joined by a few extended family members and together, we lit incense, prayed three times towards the large Buddha shrine, and then three times towards the two monks who would lead the prayer chants and blessing. A tha achar was also present to officiate the bon.

The monks began chanting in unison and after, the tha achar chanted his part. At one point, we were all told to repeat after him (as best as we could) and his chant included saying our cousin’s name several times. Chanting together with my family felt powerful, but in a gentle way. Our solemn tone filled the room as our words helped rid her soul of any negativity and attachments, easing her into transition. It was like our voices were actively carrying her soul to where it needed to go. Being there in the temple, collectively chanting and grieving, felt soothing; the act of togetherness presented a sense of hope.

While our cousin is gone in our physical world, because of our chants, her soul can now be reborn in a better place — in Khmer beliefs, there are no endings, only beginnings in death — and with that, I find peace and so will my cousin’s soul. Grieving collectively and performing rituals allow us to better facilitate grief work, encouraging everyone towards a healthy path of healing, hope, and resilience.