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Kaumaha Helu ‘Ekahi

Helu ‘Ekahi

Wili Wili Tree


"Mai kāpae i ke a‘o a nā Kūpuna, aia he ola malaila."

Do not set aside the teachings of one’s ancestors for there is life there. 


Dying, death and bereavement are universal human experiences expressed in different ways by people of different societies. Coping with these life processes is called grief work. In Hawaiʻi, this occurred within the ‘ohana, the extended family, as each member struggled through the loss of someone while coping with daily living tasks.

For Hawaiians grieving includes expressing emotions and overwhelming feelings with others, such as their ‘ohana.  The ‘ohana can provide a rich source of support for grieving family members.  Needless to say, from a traditional Hawaiian viewpoint, it is important for ‘ohana to be able to express the  ‘eha ‘eha or deep pain associated with the loss.  By releasing and expressing the ‘eha ‘eha, the ‘ohana member is more likely to deal with loss in a healthier way, and the “kau” or placement of the burden of sorrow will be lifted in time.  Several models or ways of understanding the continuum of grief and loss are highlighted below.

In the Liliʻuokalani Trust (LT) 2008 All-Agency Grief Conference, Likeke Paglinawan presented a four-stage Grief Process based on the work of Dr. Haertig that included numbness, adaptation, recovery, and reorganization with a proposed time period for each stage.  For more information, refer to The Grief Process and Time.

According to Elizabeth Kubler Ross in her book on Death and Dying 1969, grief is a process characterized generally by denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Phil Rich, in the article The Grief Continuum: Three Stages of Grief Work, makes an important distinction between grief recovery and grief work. From his perspective it is facing the reality of loss, working through painful memories, coping with the situational and lifestyle changes resulting from the loss, adapting to the loss and reconfiguring their own life.

Common among the models is the acknowledgement of the dynamic and fluid process of grief.  While they present a sequential stage-based understanding of grief, the recovery from grief is not time limited; instead, the pathway towards healing depends on the individual, their support system like the ‘ohana, the resources available to them, and their readiness to deal with the loss.

The following sections pulls together culturally associated practices and processes of grief work and recovery.


Taken from Nānā I Ke Kumu: Volume I.

  • Kaumaha (pg.132) – grief, sorrow. Holding a physical weight is followed with relief when it is set down, came the abstract idea that grief is a heavy weight followed by relief.
  • ‘Uhane (pgs. 176, 179, 182, 193) – spirit. Whoever the spirit may be, the ghostly presence has one positive attribute: it is apt to be therapeutically useful. The use to which social work put ‘uhane was well in agreement with Hawaiian traditions. Hawaiians believed that spirits returned to help or warn or admonish or give important messages.
  •  (pgs. 35, 36, 40, 136) – eternal resting place. An eternal dwelling place in the mystic see of Pō, and at the same time in the specific realm of family aumākua, whether water, rock, sky, land or volcano.

Taken from Nānā I Ke Kumu: Volume II. 

  • ‘Eha (pgs. 228-229)- the pain. ‘Eha is very close to the top emotional layer of anger. The emotional hurts of discord. Other meanings include the pain of feeling unloved, neglected, or put aside. “With Hawaiians, you’ve got to talk about the ‘eha before you can talk about who was right and who was wrong; before you can talk about causes and solutions.”
  • Ho‘ailona (pgs. 12, 38, 45, 53, 95, 138, 208) – a sign, omen, or portent. When there is something wrong, Ho‘ailona gives a person the opportunity to correct the mistake.

Traditional Hawaiian Beliefs about Dying, Death, and ‘,Uhane

Watch the video with Uncle Likeke Paglinawan and Aunty Lynette Paglinawan [00:55] on the Hawaiian belief in the spirit of an individual, upon his or her death, remaining in contact with living family members.

For many Hawaiians, the life cycle begins from the birth of a first born to the birth of a first born in the next generation. For an individual it is birth, marriage and procreation, the stage of wisdom, death, and then the journey to Pō, the place where the spirits of deceased individuals who have been good while they were alive, go to be with other deceased relatives. This belief views death as the release trigger for the person’s ‘uhane to separate from the body. Belief in eternal reunion with one’s ancestors in Pō must have been vastly reassuring to the family – conscious Hawaiians.

On the other hand, the emotional and psychological hanging on the ‘uhane causes it to linger in this sphere with man, an indication of unresolved grief or unhealthy grief. It is often reflected in statements where the dead is referred to in the present tense, as if s/he were still alive.

Today, many families are often left with unhealthy grief problems because traditional remedies are not readily available. Let us examine some Hawaiian traditional practices that promote healthy grieving.

Traditional Hawaiian Beliefs about Mourning Practices

Kaumaha is the term for grief. It literally means a heavy weight expected to be lifted. Therefore, members of the ‘ohana knew that grief was to be temporary. They knew grief work took about a year.

Grief Work within the Context of ‘Ohana

Grief work begins, for example, when the terminally ill person is cared for by ‘ohana at home. While receiving care, the ʻohana member is visited by relatives near and far and they come to set things to right and to say goodbyes. It was a time for family members to talk about the cherished good times and not-so-good times, to scold the patient. It was a time to kōkua or help the care giving relatives and to support each other.

Hoʻoponopono – to set it right

The family engaged in hoʻoponopono to restore harmony and balance through prayer, insightful discussion, confession, mutual repentance and forgiveness. This is the family meeting where conscience and conduct are scrutinized.It was a time for the dying person to get “his/her house in order” with others through hoʻoponopono. It was a time to work through harbored grievances, so that loose ends have been closed. When done, hoʻoponopono restores harmony in the family and the terminally ill feels pono and at peace with self and others.

Pule – prayer; commune with the higher power responsible for all things including life and death, source for understanding, source for help, protection, forgiveness, guidance, strength, etc. In ancient times it may have been done “oli” style.

Prayer is a way to connect with one’s spirituality. It is a way to connect with something larger that can bring inner peace, improved mental and physical wellbeing, and increased inner personal focus. 

When Death Comes

Pūholoholo – removing flesh from bones brings home the reality of the dead.

Preparing the corpse for burial was an act of the highest honor, and demonstrated unconditional love. In more recent years, close family members continue to bathe and clean the body of the deceased before other relatives gathered.

A Sad Occasion Yet Joyful Reunion Atmosphere, A Celebration

Hawaiians view wakes and funerals as a time for relatives to come together to reaffirm family connections with food and drink and to share the reunion in the presence of the decease with sorrow and tears and merry-making.

Touching the Deceased Brings Home the Reality of the Dead

It was not uncommon for children to talk and touch the decease in an effort to realize that a person was dead. Adults also touch, kiss, and rub the deceased to reinforce the reality of death.

Uwe – wailing and crying:

Crying and wailing are part of a Hawaiian experience. Being present and seeing and hearing the emotional outcry of adults who paid their respects to the deceased, children learned it was alright to cry and wail rather than keep it in.

Oli Kanikau – a chant of lamentation, a dirge (as an expression of grief in chant form)

Kūpuna would recite the genealogy of the deceased, expressed aloha for the deceased, and recounted shared memorable experiences as the body was approached.  

Other Forms of Expression

Speaking directly to the corpse was acceptable. It was okay for adults to vent hostility toward the dead. Expressing feelings from sorrow and pain communicate that reactions of hurt were okay. Children would see and learn that adults ask the corpse for forgiveness and peace, thus learning from them how to deal with death. For a more detailed explanation, please refer to Kaumaha ‘Elua video.

Aha ‘Aina Waimaka – funeral feast exactly 1 year from date of death to celebrate closure and recognize beginnings

Traditionally, after the burial, the mourners held a feast. This feast symbolized the laying of the dead and allowing the living to comfort each other. Food is a means of psychologically satisfying the loss of appetite and empty feelings usually present in the stages of grief.

Worker Preparation

Reflecting on how you as a worker have coped/are coping with loss can provide valuable insights that can be shared – only if you are ready and comfortable – with your ‘ohana.  Consider and discuss the following questions:  

  • What are grief practices present in your culture?
  • Have you experienced or been told about any traditional Hawaiian practices related to grief at funerals or elsewhere?

Activities with the ‘Ohana


A modern form of Oli Kanikau is a Haku Mele as a way of honoring and ritualizing the loss of a family member. 

Click on the PDF to read the Haku Mele Components.


The grieving process is dynamic and fluid, no two people experience the process in the same way.