This article will introduce some definitions that are useful to think about in the context of loss.
Grief is the natural healing cycle humans endure when they experience the emotional, cognitive, physical, and spiritual reactions after a loss or separation. Grief is normal and necessary for recovery and reinvestment in life to occur. Grief has no timetable and may be refreshed at different phases of development.
Over the millenia, humans have designed rituals to help explain and contain the intensities of grief by surrounding and enveloping them in social caring and support. These rituals have traditionally been the province of religion. However, secular public displays of and holding responses to, our grief after a death can be equally helpful.
In the way I am defining it here, ritual is not a habit, though some habits are ritualistic in that they are repeated and felt as necessary. Rather, ritual is a set of deliberate or intentional acts designed to help individuals and groups traverse through important life passages such as death.
In the context of grief, ritual is a personally, culturally or religiously informed dynamic holding-environment built to absorb our reactions to loss. It is a container that is strong and flexible enough to help process the chaos that ensues when we are separated from each other through death.
The ritual container serves to allow for a wide range of reactions to loss. In mourning rituals, acts are taken to express, memorialize, and establish a non-physical but nonetheless meaningful connection with the dead. Mourning is a continuing non-physical, psychological or spiritual relatedness with the dead.
The initial chaos of grief is gradually brought into a cosmos (order) as the mourners draw from the power of their tradition or group to mark the difficult passage of loss and separation.
Grief rituals can be individualized for those who may wish to create their own ways or who might not be affiliated with a specific tradition.
In modern society there are more choices available to mourners than in the past. Meeting with a grief therapist often helps to thoughtfully consider how to honor the dead and touch through ritual the very heart of the mourning experience: finding ways to maintain continuity and connection with the dead.
In the next article I will give some specific grief ritual examples from my practice.
David Fireman, LCSW