Ritual and Loss

Ritual is often important in the grieving process,  helping us to mark an important event in our lives, pay homage to a loved one, and make meaning of our loss.

Some bereavement rituals are public and visible, such as funerals, wearing black for a period of time after the death of a loved one, or sitting shiva. These types of rituals can help garner support for mourners and may strengthen their bonds to friends, family and community. They may also help a mourner to engage and reenter the social world.

Private rituals are less visible; they may be done alone, or perhaps in a small intimate group. They differ from public rituals as they do not have the function of gaining social support and connection, but they share the fundamental goal of connecting to the memory of the deceased in a powerful way. Examples of private rituals include writing a letter to the lost loved one, taking on an activity of the deceased, such as caring for their garden or reading a book they loved, or lighting a memorial candle in one’s home.

Many complex losses are lacking in rituals. We often do not have funerals after a miscarriage or the death of a pet, for example, and these types of losses therefore garner less communal support as there are less structures and traditions in place. Subsequent siblings are born after the death of their sibling, so they miss their sibling’s funeral and may feel that they were never given the opportunity to say goodbye. Likewise, if a beloved person is missing we may not have a funeral as we still hope for their return. The lack of ritual for those suffering a complex loss may increase their sense of isolation and complicate the grieving process.

Creating and implementing a ritual which resonates with us can be an important step after a complex loss. Part of the power of ritual lies in the fact that an action is involved. After a loss we may feel helpless or out of control. Choosing and taking a meaningful action may help us to feel less powerless. There is obviously no “one size fits all” for ritual; it is a very personal process. You may want to create a ritual for yourself alone, or perhaps you will share it with others who support you or who share your loss. Some might choose a ritual which connects to their faith or family traditions. Some ideas include:

  • Planting a tree, favorite flowers, or an herb garden in the memory of the deceased.
  • Preparing the favorite foods of the lost loved one: sometimes this is helpful on a birthday or the anniversary of their death.
  • Drinking a toast to the deceased, and sharing special memories.
  • Creating a memory shrine which could include photos, candles, flowers, poems, and mementos. The shrine could change and be added to over time as you’d like.
  • Doing a good deed in the memory of the deceased. You may want to connect to a cause that mattered to them. For example, if your loved one was an animal lover you might volunteer at a shelter or foster an animal in need. You could also donate to a charity, or simply act kindly and generously towards others in their memory.
  • Creating an art piece in the memory of the deceased. This could be a collage of photos, a memory box, a memory book, a painting, a quilt; the options are limitless.
  • Engaging in an activity that was important to the deceased, such as biking on their favorite trail, or participating in an activity which you loved doing together.
  • Writing a letter to your lost loved one. If you choose this could be done in a journal format. You may want to write about updates in your life or things you would like to say, and this could be a way to honor your connection to the deceased.

Be as creative as you wish. The creation of a ritual is a highly personal process, and yours might be entirely unique. I worked at one time with a family who wanted to commemorate the birthday of their deceased baby. The parents and surviving sibling decided to make a birthday cake to bring to the baby’s grave, which was located in a rural cemetery near the woods. They created a cake made from bird seed and other edible items which would feed the deer and the birds. Their special ritual was very comforting and affirming for them.

Please feel free to share if you have any rituals which have been meaningful or helpful for you.