Rituals give meaning to the painful and precious opportunities we are given to express and move through grief after we’ve lost a loved one. Many such opportunities may be missed because of our upset, confusion and sense of being adrift that so often accompany grieving. However, it is important to note that rituals and ceremonies can always be created, even years later, on anniversaries of our loved one’s death, birthday or other anniversary.
Life is a series of passages we undergo in cycles that are unending; ceremonies are the bridges between the old and the new worlds – times when we stop to acknowledge, honor and appreciate a rite of passage for its meaningfulness. In all passages, there are three stages to be recognized: separation, transition, and incorporation.
SEPARATION – When we lose our spouse, for example, we leave the world we have known, and cross into a world that is new and unfamiliar; we are severed from a previous status or identity. We are launched into a special kind of spiritual quest. The emotions of fear, sadness, anxiety, anger and depression are felt during this stage and we may need professional support as well as support from family and friends. A funeral is one ceremony of separation where the deceased person’s life is honored and their death is treated with dignity and respect, and the surviving spouse and family are shown support and special care and understanding.
At a recent funeral that I conducted, I lit a candle at the start that signified the deceased’s inner spiritual light that we were honoring; at the end I blew the candle out to signify his final departure from this earth.
TRANSITION – We enter a stage of learning how to accept and adapt to our new status and changed circumstances. When we move from being a married person to being a widow or widower, for example, we feel uncertainty, loneliness, self-doubt, anxiety, sadness and a feeling of being lost or disoriented. We need support and guidance to learn how to adapt and take on a new and changed role in our family and our community, at work and at home. A ceremony of transition might be a memorial service held on the first anniversary of the deceased person’s death where we not only honor their memory, but celebrate their life and acknowledge their death.
A personal grieving ritual of transition that supports the widow or widower is the sorting through and donation of their deceased partner’s clothing which can be helpful to begin to let go of the past. Please note: there is no urgency in this ritual and people vary widely in their readiness to go through their loved one’s clothing; never shame the grieving person into doing this before they are ready. I know some people who kept clothing for a long time, even a year or more, before they felt able to complete this action.
INCORPORATION – In this stage, the grieving person emerges from their spiritual quest with a new status; and they, and society, begin to accept that change. A ceremony of incorporation could be a dinner out with close personal friends to acknowledge one’s own birthday and to remember previous birthday dinners when the deceased partner was in attendance, by telling stories and sharing laughter and tears. Held in the loving circle of friends, there can be comfort and safety in exploring a new identity while remembering the old as a way of integrating the change.
Other small rituals can help with incorporation; for example, one client I have decided to post on her refrigerator a handwritten sign with a quote she found helpful so that she could look at it daily, read it over, and remind herself that she was making a new life for herself as a widow.
At one hospice I know they host an annual day of remembrance where family members can return and be part of a ceremony to release balloons, read poems, and tributes to their loved ones who died. Another hospice holds an annual Christmas tree ceremony where the names of deceased loved ones are written on pieces of paper that are hung on the tree, while prayers and poems are read and shared with those who are gathered around the tree. These are both examples of rituals of incorporation and they can bring healing and comfort to the bereaved.
There are times when we say “It’s never too late” and I think rites of passage, rituals and ceremonies fall into that category. Grief takes time to heal and we may never fully “heal” from a broken heart, but we can be helped to accept what has changed and integrate it into our new life. Remember, grief is not a disease or a condition or a disorder that requires treatment; it is an emotional, physical and spiritual necessity, the price we pay for love. The only cure for grief is to grieve.