We performed rituals to acknowledge important life changes—graduations, retirements, and even funerals

When my mother was only 18 years old, her boyfriend suddenly broke up with her. Like 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.

THE BASICS

Understanding Grief

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.

PREVALENCE AND POWER OF RITUALS

Rituals are found
across all cultures and
are documented
throughout time.

Rituals reduce
anxiety, alleviate
emotional pain,
provide opportunities
to experience joy, and
build relationships
within communities.

A daily journal writing routine is an entire body exercise. Performing rituals give life’s events physical and mental coherency. A relationship between idea and behavior.

Rituals help us get over and move ahead of incidents by enduring the end and leaving them behind. They provide factual knowledge for the future—the memory and experience. A ritual is the body’s way of processing what you know happened (propositional knowledge) or a natural method of engraving a celebration in your mind. (EZM)

THE GRANDMOTHER CEREMONY

“Today’s the one-year anniversary of the day your mommy went to heaven,” I told my three grandchildren as we gathered around the family’s dinette table.

Eleven-year-old William’s eyes widened. “Has it been that long already?”

“Yes, it’s hard to believe, isn’t it? But I have an idea of something special we can do to honor your mommy on her special day. We’ll need some Magic Markers and crayons.”

“I know where some are,” Tori said, and she promptly leapt from her seat. She grabbed a chair, scooted it over to the desk in the kitchen, and stood on its seat. Climbing onto the countertop, she reached the upper cabinet and the family’s school supplies stored there.

I took some uninflated Mylar balloons out of my shopping bag and placed them on the dinette table. “The idea here is to decorate these and write messages on them to your mother. Then later, we’ll have them blown up, take them to a high hill in the park, and release them into the heavens.”

I’d hardly finished the directions when all three children dove into the supplies like they were a plateful of cookies and they were really hungry. Thirteen-year-old Ethan began drawing x and o symbols for hugs and kisses around the outer edge of his circular balloon. Will and Tori drew hearts and some flowers to go along with the central message, “We love you, Mommy. We miss you, Mommy.”

I’d been in Nebraska for nearly a week, helping to celebrate Tori’s eighth birthday and taking the kids on outings. I’d seen how bereft Bill seemed, lost in his own private world, except when engaged by the children. I wanted to talk with him about my ideas for this ceremony, to tell him why I thought such a thing was important. For thirty years, I’d heard clients in therapy describe a particular season or day of the year when they annually and inexplicably became depressed. They might tell me about driving carelessly, starting a fight with a boss or a spouse, or barely having the strength to get out of bed. On further exploratory questioning, I learned that these episodes often corresponded to an anniversary important to a deceased loved one—a birth or death day or the anniversary of an accident. Most importantly, the day was not marked or thought about consciously but remembered at some deeper level, emerging to cause trouble in their lives.

After Ken’s death, I remembered these stories of my clients, and I decided to begin a practice of celebrating Ken, especially on his birthday and crossing day. On the first anniversary of his death, I happened to be meeting with an executive from Blue Cross and Blue Shield, exploring the possibility of reimbursements for a staying-healthy program I’d developed. As we drove to the meeting, I told the psychologist who was presenting with me, “Reforming the health care system, even in this tiny way, is a great way to celebrate my son. He would definitely approve.” Most every year since, I’ve looked for projects and actions to take to honor him.

But I didn’t say any of this to Bill. I watched and waited to see how he wanted to handle Corinne’s anniversary, and it seemed he didn’t want to mention it. Whenever I had the impulse to bring it up, something inside held me back. If I told him about the ceremony I was planning, he might forbid me to do it or, more likely, insist on coming along while not really wanting to be there. In either case, he would ruin it for the children and me. I finally decided this was a grandmother thing. I would honor his way of grieving, and I would share with my grandchildren something my wisdom told me would be good for them. In retrospect, this turned out to be a mistake, one that affected Bill’s and my relationship negatively for the year that followed.

After decorating the balloons, the kids and I had met two of their mother’s women friends for lunch at a small restaurant, and the plan was to see a movie afterward. The two younger children didn’t like any of the offerings on the menu and sulked at the table. Typically, they weren’t picky about food, so I took them across the street to a grocery store to see if they might find something there. As they dismissed the sandwiches in the deli case one after another, I knew it wasn’t about the food. It was about how decorating the balloons had created a stronger realization of how much they missed their mother. The child therapist friend who had told me about the balloon ritual had not warned me about this possibility.

I chastised myself for not going ahead and releasing the balloons immediately rather than interrupting the process with lunch and a movie. But we had selected the early matinee because Will thought the later movie might make him late for football practice, which, in this sports-minded family, was a definite no-no. As it turned out, the March of the Penguins couldn’t have been a better choice. The icy terrain on the screen was a welcome respite from the scorching August weather outside. The struggle of the adult penguins to breed and raise their young prompted my grandchildren to comment on how much trouble parents go through for their kids. The life cycle of birth and death, and the role of the community as a buffer from the harsh realities of wind and weather, seemed especially relevant to what we had been through as a family in the last few years.

The next stop was the party store to get the balloons inflated. The kids chose to stay in the car in spite of my warning that it might get uncomfortably hot. We drove to Observation Hill, the highest point near the lake, and trudged through a freshly tilled cornfield, its stubble active with flying bugs. Ethan set up my iPod and portable speakers, somewhat impressed that his grandmother had such tech-savvy equipment. I chose the gospel song “God Is Good to Me,” sung by the Glide Memorial Choir, a song that I had danced to at my women’s retreat when Ken was ill.

We stood atop the hill, in view of the Nebraska State Capitol, each holding our balloons while the words of the song filled the air: “I haven’t always been as good as I can be, but God’s been good to me.” I let my purple balloon go first, saying, “l love you, darling daughter.” Standing with our eyes skyward, we four watched my balloon twist around slowly on the wind drifts and then sail high out of sight into the sky. Ethan was next, his light pink balloon easier to see as it traveled more directly upward. We watched till we couldn’t see his balloon anymore.

“Who wants to go next?”

Tori grabbed Will’s hand and squeezed it. “Let’s do it together.” And holding hands, they both let their balloons go at the exact same instant, and together we watched them soar.

At dinner that night, at a restaurant with Bill’s dad, there was no mention of Corinne or of the day’s activities. I was surprised that the children didn’t mention what we’d done, as they would normally talk about their day with their dad. Instead, the discussion topic at the table, initiated and continued by Bill’s questions, was his father’s World War II experiences in the navy. Neither the children nor I had anything to add, nor could we find a bridge to connect with how we had spent our day.

After I had left Nebraska, when the children finally did tell Bill about the ceremony, he got angry because he saw this as my “going around him,” which was partly true. On the second anniversary of Corinne’s crossing, I followed him out into the backyard so we could talk in private. Standing under the overhang of the house to avoid getting wet from the rain, I apologized for any pain that my actions might have caused him. Corinne’s presence felt palatable during our conversation, and as the sun emerged from around the rain clouds, we came to some mutual understanding about our different ways of grieving. (Pg.222)*

AFTER WORDS

I came to know Steve, a Native American in his mid-thirties, when I directed a social work project in western Nebraska in 1976. The previous fall, my family had buried my kid brother Kenny, and I asked Steve the question most on my mind: “In your culture, when someone close dies, how long does grieving last?” He shook his head, as though he might be too young to know the answer, but he said, “The elders say eight seasons.”

Eight seasons—two years. That felt encouraging to me. First off, it meant my sorrow for my brother wouldn’t last my whole lifetime and that it was a process that took time. And like the seasons, it was one that could not be hurried. (Pg.223)*

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/supersurvivors/201909/the-power-rituals-heal-grief

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