By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
There is nothing new or unusual about performing rituals. We’ve been engaging in rituals all of our lives, often without even thinking about what we are doing or why. We just do them because we’ve always done them, or because we would feel off balance if we didn’t. They bring meaning to our lives in very subtle, yet profound ways. Putting a hand over your heart when a flag goes by in a parade, saying hello to the bus driver, kissing your loved one good night, attending a weekly religious service, walking to the store to buy the newspaper and then sitting down to read it cover to cover, taking your son to the first football game of the season, just like your dad did with you. These are examples of rituals that have been passed on to us or ones that we created ourselves to say “yes” and to help us feel grounded.
The rituals we engage in tell our own personal story of who we are as individuals and what we believe. They provide structure, meaning and connectedness.
In grief rituals are a meaningful part of our healing journey. They help to reduce chaos (momentarily, at least) and bring clarity.
We think immediately of the public rituals associated with death: funerals, memorial gatherings, annual remembrance services, balloon lift offs, butterfly releases—occasions where crowds gather together to remember. These are good and important activities for us as a society as we acknowledge and affirm the life of a person who was with us for a season, but now is gone.
But it’s the little rituals that we can do on our own that are private affirmations of our continued bond. They’re filled with gratitude, memory, and awe, like kissing our departed loved ones picture before turning out the light, looking out the window and up at the stars and saying goodnight to the one who is gone, drinking your first cup of coffee for the day from her favorite cup, lighting a candle and saying “thank you”, wearing his favorite sweater on Saturday mornings.
Most often rituals will include ingredients that are a natural part of our life. When we use them in ritual we render them holy.
Food, water, smells, fire, sound, space, gestures, the work of our hands, or articles of clothing take on new meaning when we cement our love to our departed loved ones in a symbolic way. Here are some ideas:
Food: serving to friends and family your loved one’s favorite meal on your
loved one’s birth date.
Water: washing your hands when you are finished doing your grieving time
for the day as a way of refreshing yourself for the other part of life that is
Fire: writing on paper thoughts that have been troubling you and then burning
Sound: ringing a bell that you have designated to be their bell as a way of
acknowledging your loved one’s presence.
Space: going to the cemetery or a favorite place and having a picnic
Gestures: touching your loved one’s handprint or winking at their picture on the wall.
The work of our hands: building a memory box or making a quilt using pictures or
some of their clothing
My mind can think of hundreds of small things we do as we go through the day that we notice we do with purpose. It’s what the intent is that makes any action a ritual.
It is good to go to that spiritual place where we can be alone and okay with who we are becoming. We have to learn how to become comfortable in our new skin before we can expect others to be comfortable with who we are now. Rituals can help us in this process.
Sometimes we don’t recognize them for how they speak of who we are, our roots or how we need to be connected.