Native American customs have been passed down through the generations.
Native American customs have been passed down through the generations.

There are hundreds of Native American tribes in North America, thousands of people who will go through life and die, carrying the beliefs of their native forefathers. Native American nations don't share a single belief system or common practices, but there are a few basic tips that can keep you on track as you express your sympathy for the death of someone they hold dear.

Express your honest emotions. Native Americans believe that death is not the end of life, but do grieve the loss of a loved one just the same. Precisely as you would express your sincere sympathy toward any other friend or acquaintance in their time of grief, let survivors know that you're sorry for their suffering.

Understand the differences. It is not uncommon for Native Americans to integrate some traditionally Christian practices into their funeral services. That does not necessarily mean that the family holds the same beliefs as mainstream Christians. For instance, many Native Americans don't believe in heaven and hell, so don't attempt to comfort someone by saying of the decedent, "At least she's in heaven now."

Keep proselytizing to yourself. Even if your religious or social beliefs are quite different from those of the Native Americans, do not choose a time of grief to try to share your way of thinking. Show an appreciation for the complexity and diversity of the Native American belief system.

Model nonverbal communication styles back to the mourners. Some Native Americans avoid making sustained eye contact. Make a mental note of their body language and show respect for them by adapting your own behavior to their communication style.

When the situation presents itself, take interest in their story. Ask a grieving friend or relative to share stories of the decedent. Give the person the opportunity to tell the story from his perspective, within his own cultural understanding. Remember that grief is the same across cultures and everyone wants to believe that the person who has passed is remembered for their unique, special traits.

Expect to see behavior that you may not understand. For instance, some Native Americans believe that birds can carry prayers directly to God and will integrate a bird or bird and feather into their grieving process. Whenever you see something that is new to you, wait until you find an appropriate time to ask about its significance. Simply listen, without offering judgment or trying to one-up them with stories of your own beliefs.

Ask what you can do. Find out if friends are planning to bring meals to the grieving family. See if the family needs someone to stay with their children or an elderly family member while they see to funeral business. Without pushing your way into the home, be available to support them as you would any other grieving family.