Embracing Grief and the Power of Rituals
by Taylor Evans February 04, 2022 5 min read
When it comes to dealing with grief, there is no single method to help families or individuals cope with loss. Some opt for special rituals to help bring closure and calm, but what does that look like? How do we establish rituals? How can they really help us?
How do Daily Rituals Bring Comfort in Our Lives?
Most of us have some sort of little daily ritual we conduct on a regular basis, whether it’s the order in which we get ready in the morning for work, or perhaps our nighttime ritual in preparation for bed. Daily rituals may include going for a morning walk, yoga, watching the sunrise, or meditation. It might be creating a set of goals for the day like reading a new chapter in a book or allowing your mind to create something in art or writing.
Some have family rituals, in which they may visit a place of worship. Others may participate in family games or charades. Family rituals involve communication with symbolic meaning, establishing and perpetuating the understanding of what it means to be a member of the group. This gives each member a sense of security, identity and belonging.
In light of the pandemic, many of us have unknowingly entered into entirely new rituals, like devoting time to health or emotional wellbeing. In the workplace, and often while working from home, some companies have incorporated weekly video meetings to get to know one another and add a sense of human connection.
Often, without even realizing it, we use little rituals throughout life. They often bring comfort, help us refocus on ourselves, and offer us a way to feel connected to those around us or those we love. During times when things feel out of our control, rituals help us restore a sense of stability in our lives.
With that in mind, having rituals to cope with the passing of a loved one can be tremendously powerful and healing when it comes to the process of grieving.
What Makes a Ritual?
Ritual rit·u·al /ˈriCH(o͞o)əl/ a series of actions or type of behavior regularly
and invariably followed by someone.
Rituals are conducted on an entire spectrum of behaviors and habits, not just in terms of religious values or the loss of a loved one. In fact, when removed from the religious or spiritual connotation, rituals are defined as “a series of actions or type of behavior regularly and invariably followed by someone”. It is repetition and intent that ultimately makes something a ritual, rather than any connected deity or worship. It also doesn’t specify the frequency of that repetition, so it might be a daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, or multi-year repetition that occurs.
Often, people decide and set rituals based on what may enhance their life. The intent behind a daily ritual may be to help bring balance to one’s mind and body, allow for refocus, find a sense of inner peace, or establish goals for the future.
While rituals don’t have to be massive activities or gestures, some very well can be. Ceremonial rituals like those that occur during traditional wedding ceremonies across various religions are an excellent example of that. Funerals and rituals like hosting a wake ceremony or taking the cremation urn for ashes and spreading the ashes are both additional common religious rituals that occur in some faiths.
What we often fail to realize is that there are countless other means in which rituals can play an important role in our lives. Rituals play an incredibly important role in our lives. They present us with a consistent activity or behavior to engage in, one that allows us to feel a sense of stability, peace, and comfort. It gives us meaning and something to look forward to.
When dealing with the loss of someone we loved, rituals can have the same power to bring comfort and help us heal. Simple family rituals like sharing the ashes for cremation jewelry or pendants for ashes, or more elaborate rituals like hosting a celebration of life can really help individuals cope with death.
The Significance of Rituals
in Relation to the Death of a Loved One
Recent research conducted by Joanna Wojtkowiak, a professor in Psychology in Humanistic Studies in Utrecht, Netherlands (and others in the field of psychology) found that there is significant power in rituals, especially to those who experience prolonged grief after the departure of a loved one.
(Read more on their research that was published on NCBI here. The National Center for Biotechnology Information advances science and health by providing access to biomedical and genomic information.)
This study informs how grief can significantly cause distress and life impairment in individuals for anywhere from 6-12 months in the bereavement process. Rituals-- whether religious, spiritual, personal, or communal, can help provide therapy during those periods of traumatic grief while also regulating emotions, performance and social connection. The ritual creates a safe environment to express emotions as the ritual has a clear beginning and end. Ritual creates a possibility to act on ambivalent emotions and through the use of symbolic language and acts, the ambivalence is not denied or rejected, instead it is embraced.
There is a strong sense of unity and oneness when we perform rituals that are of great significance to us. They allow us to feel reconnected to someone we’ve lost. They also provide an opportunity to mourn and remember the individual, which is powerful in providing comfort because it reminds us they are not forgotten.
Rituals that are performed in remembrance can help us in healing. For example, a family who lost their matriarch to breast cancer may attend a breast cancer running marathon every year. Some families may choose to visit the columbarium and hold a ceremony. Others choose to write letters to their loved ones as a form of grieving. Not only is this allowing them time to remember and come together for someone they’ve lost, but it also provides comfort knowing that it is also an opportunity to help and connect to others in similar positions.
Rituals to celebrate and remember a loved one can range tremendously from different cultures, types of behaviors and activities. The purpose is to have intent and repetition and to provide it in a way that is meaningful to those partaking.
Whether you’re considering a public, private, or communal ritual to remember a loved one, know that it can bring powerful healing to you and your family. Think of actions that can bring everyone together in a positive and comforting way, allow opportunities for remembrance in a positive light, and build continued memories in moving forward. Whether it’s getting together for a dinner, planning a family trip to a special location, running a marathon, or writing letters, do what feels best for you and your family when it comes to choosing a memorial ritual.
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