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Photograph of votive candles lit inside a church

Photograph of votive candles lit inside a church

The Power of Rituals to Heal Grief

Four questions can help develop a ritual for honoring loss and healing grief.

When my mother was only 18 years old, her boyfriend suddenly broke up with her. As would be the case for most of us, she experienced a mixture of shock and sadness.

Luckily, her brother Richard, who had been through a similar experience, knew just what to do. He picked her up in his late-1960s Firebird and took her to the local A&W Rootbeer stand. There, they sat together. They didn’t say much—just gulped down root beer floats.

When Richard recently passed away at the age of 65, my mom also knew just what to do. In silence, she drove herself, now in a mid-2010s Toyota, to the local A&W Rootbeer stand. There, she ordered two floats and drank both of them.

Rituals are an important way for people to find meaning when they lose a loved one. Everyone is familiar with rituals. Perhaps you’ve performed them during holidays, in church, or even before ballgames. You may have performed rituals to acknowledge important life changes—graduations, retirements, and even funerals. But, much like my mother’s spontaneous visit to the rootbeer stand, they don’t have to be formal.

The power of rituals lies in their symbolism. Consider the ritual of graduation. Walking across a stage and shaking someone’s hand is no big deal as an act in itself. We walk all over the place and shake people’s hands all the time. But this act takes on special meaning when it’s performed at graduation, symbolizing an important transition.

Another symbolic ritual involves wine. Although drinking wine with dinner may be pleasant, the same activity takes on powerful meaning during certain religious services. The symbolism in these rituals can fill us with emotion, give us goosebumps, and punctuate the important events of our lives. Research even shows that some rituals facilitate the body’s release of endorphins, which can help reduce anxiety and physical pain.

But few people realize the power of creating their own rituals. An acquaintance of mine, Donald, was only 38 when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was a professional photographer, making most of his living snapping photographs at weddings. Nonetheless, he loved taking photos in a nearby nature preserve, where he could be found on his days off. Although he never shared these pictures with anyone, taking them was one of his great loves. 

So, shortly after Donald was first hospitalized, his father decided to visit the nature preserve. He brought along an old, 35-mm camera and took photographs that he thought his son would enjoy. Donald loved them, and a ritual was established. Every time he entered the hospital, his father would visit the preserve and show him the pictures.

For Donald, this ritual was meaningful because it shared his great love of nature with his dad. For his father, it was meaningful, because it kept a piece of his son alive and well. Eventually, Donald passed away. To this day, however, his father visits the preserve four times a year, once for every season. There, he speaks to his son, takes a few pictures, and doesn’t show them to anyone.

Rituals are actions that symbolically connect us to something meaningful. They can be comforting, express feelings, bring about a sense of closure, or keep an important part of the past alive. When rituals are done to commemorate a loss, they honor both the person who is doing them and the person they’ve lost. 

Although most people think of rituals as formal and even complex, creating a personal ritual can actually be simple. Here are four questions to help develop a ritual that will be personally meaningful for you:

What is the meaning of your ritual? 

A good place to begin in developing a ritual is to determine what you’d like it to mean. Among virtually limitless meanings, rituals can be used to mark a life change, celebrate or commemorate an important memory, carry on an activity for a person who is no longer present, or connect us with living or deceased loved ones. For my mother, the meaning of her ritual was to connect with her lost brother and provide comfort in a way that was linked to their history together.

When and where will the ritual take place?

Although rituals frequently take place on important dates, such as birthdays or anniversaries, they can happen whenever and wherever it feels right. You may decide to do them only once or repeat them once a year or several times a year. Although churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious or spiritual places are common settings, rituals can take place anywhere.

Consider what settings might connect you to the meaning of your ritual. Although most people wouldn’t consider a drive-though A&W restaurant to be a “sacred” space, rituals have a way of bringing significance to almost any location.

Who will be present?

Rituals can involve other people or be performed alone. Consider whether or not having others present will enable you to connect more fully to the meaning of your ritual. For example, a ritual frequently used in psychotherapy to help heal emotional wounds is for clients to write a letter expressing their feelings toward a person who has wronged them. Provided that the wrongdoer is still alive and accessible, a question that often arises is whether the letter should be shared with him or her. 

There’s no right or wrong answer to this question, of course. The important thing is that this decision reflects the goals of the ritual. Sometimes, the ritual needs to involve another person. Other times, it can seem more meaningful to do it alone. Some clients who write the aforementioned letter, for instance, find it most symbolic and healing to do something like burn the letter and scatter the ashes.

What will be done? 

Reflect on what kinds of actions or activities will most connect you with the meaning of your ritual. These can require anywhere from seconds to hours, depending on what you feel works best. As mentioned previously, however, try not to get caught in the trap of thinking that rituals have to be complicated or lengthy. Some are, and some aren’t.

For my mother, an act that most of us would do mindlessly—enjoying a root beer with a dollop of ice cream—took on poignancy because of the factors mentioned above. Formal rituals like funerals or memorial services are important for many people when they lose a loved one. But sometimes, the most meaningful rituals are those that are more personal and tailored only for you.

And a little rootbeer never hurts, either.

This article was originally published on September 28, 2019 in Psychology Today.

David Feldman is also host of the “Psychology in 10 Minutes” podcast, which can be accessed through any podcast app or at  davidfeldmanphd.com

Family, Counseling Psychology
Illuminate, compassion, health, personal growth, psychology

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