"Having access to cultural support means people also have access to spiritual support. "

Traditionally, Māori understand that birth and death are part of the life cycle and that kaumātua who die have passed through the ārai (veil) and having travelled through the portal separating the physical and metaphysical worlds, will arrive at their spiritual home. Some will speak of this place as Hawaiki, while others may speak of it in terms of a heavenly realm. Regardless of spiritual faith, there is the belief in the eternal wairua (spirit) and its reconnection with tūpuna (ancestors) and friends. The belief in the eternal spirit brings a huge comfort to mourners who know they will see their loved one again.

Having access to cultural support means people also have access to spiritual support. Health and social care professionals can connect kaumātua and whānau with appropriate spiritual support if this is needed. This is particularly important if there has been a change in the health status of a kaumātua or they are dying. Because whānau are diverse, their spiritual preferences will differ. There can be differences in spiritual beliefs and practices between families and also, within the same whānau. Most traditional whānau will have their own people and resources to carry out their spiritual rituals. There will be others who may not wish to observe any spiritual formalities. Spirituality is a very fluid concept that is interpreted and lived by individuals; for some it is finding peace and tranquillity in one’s life now and this may be found through spending time strolling in the ngāhere (bush) or sitting on a sandy dune looking out towards the moana (sea).

Some whānau are very traditional and their expectations will be more formal. Many whānau follow spiritual tribal processes, while others may follow a form of Christianity. Whānau who are more traditional will mostly likely observe spiritual practices; prayers morning or night (sometimes at specific times of the day), and these rituals will reflect their specific spiritual beliefs and practices. Some whānau use holy water while others do not. Some like to sing a lot, others do not. Regardless of the spiritual beliefs and customs of individual whānau it is spiritually healing for them gather around the person 24/7 when they are close to dying.

Whaea Marj was asked what her key strengths were, as someone with a life-limiting illness. She spoke about the importance of her relationship with God and how she talks to him:

Day by day is the belief that I have the power of my tūpuna and the help of my Heavenly Father. Those are my key strengths that get me through. And I don’t sit there, and I don’t pray, and I think, I think ‘come on we’ve got to get this thing working. We got to crack it. I don’t want to be, looking at a certain way in life. I want to be living it again. My gardens need me Lord’ and that’s how I talk to him… it’s a conversation thing... Somebody said to me one day, ‘You need to pray a lot.’ And I went, ‘I don’t pray. I talk.’ What’s the good of praying when you can just talk straight out to them like they’re your friend? Yeah.


For health and palliative care professionals, we recommend:

  • Gently and sensitively enquiring about what spiritual support the kaumātua and their whānau may need at this time to help them. Let them know what support is available through your services. Keep enquiries open as spiritual values, beliefs and practices extend beyond either traditional tribal customs or religious Christian practices to include other forms of spirituality including New Age beliefs.
  • Putting bereavement support in place early if this is needed. Sometimes whānau pani may need bereavement support weeks or months later, when the tangihanga or internment process and rituals have been completed.
  • Treading carefully and being respectful of peoples’ end of life care preferences. Offering people privacy and space to carry out karakia or to have a whānau hui for example, might be very helpful. Offering to connect whānau with a Māori spiritual support team or pastoral care as this might be beneficial.
  • Getting support from your manager to upskill in the area of cultural competencies if you are unaware of Māori tikanga (customs) and spiritual practices as this is an essential part of good end of life care.

For health, palliative and social care professionals, we recommend that:

  • You are aware that not all whānau wish to participate in Māori customs and this is their right. Doing what can be done to make them feel comfortable, according to their wishes, is the key.

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