by David Fireman, LCSW

The anguish of grief takes its own course and demands an unknown schedule. For a time we are dominated by its waves as they crash through us, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. Our reflex is to fortify and resist. It’s actually only natural to do so. In this confrontation we recoil, tense up, protest. However, in the end the best recourse when this happens is to submit and try to let the waves crash and pass through. Like all things in nature, grief has its own course and eventually softens and slows after seemingly endless hours of agony. The experience is comprehensive, full-bodied, all-encompassing and affects us from surface to core. And yet, humanity has found, refined, and even practiced rituals for centuries to help contain and express our most complicated and painful griefs. In fact, after recognizing a loss, that is, finally allowing the knowledge of a loss to absorb into our mind and body, the next phase is to begin reacting to that loss. It is within a multitude of physical, emotional, cognitive, social, and spiritual reactions that we benefit from the containing structure of ritual. Indeed, ritual provides a way forward through the ordeal within the needed confines of an ordering principle that begins to help us deal with the chaos stimulated by loss.

In some ways, our secular society has lost its connection to and/or abandoned previously held religious-based grief rituals. We find that the spiritual guidance for bereavement offered by religion often misses the boat or activates resistance, as it may impose rather procedural, unfamiliar or uncomfortable acts. On the other hand, there remain religious traditions that do provide centuries-old wisdom about death, dying, grief, and mourning. For those lucky enough to feel an authentic connection to such traditions, the ritual experience offers a profound sense of being held in a lineage of generational support. In addition, the various steps and stages of the ritual process have been carefully determined and designed, engendering feelings of reassurance and predictability grounded in tradition through a most destabilizing time.
However, for many it is critical to self-authorize and find a way to design a grief ritual that takes into account the specific nature of the loss and the extremely personal reactions in response to it. It just may simply feel more authentic and meaningful to do so.
There are a number of factors to consider if you decide to create your own grief ritual.

  1. Understand that grief and mourning are natural healing responses aimed at continuing a non-physical bond with the dead as well as letting go.
  2. Design your ritual so that it includes special aspects of your relationship and highlights the longing you may feel to connect with the memory of your loved one.
  3. Ritual is a way to channel and contain powerful emotions to bring a sense of order to chaos, so give yourself permission to express what you must, knowing that your ritual is strong and flexible, capable of holding and honoring your intensity.
  4. Decide whether you want to perform your grief ritual alone or with others. Make sure you choose carefully and tell others in advance what you are intending as well as its purpose. If you have roles for others in your ritual, be clear about what you want and don’t want from them.
  5. Realize that you can perform a grief ritual many times if needed and can change the format in ways that feel authentic to the moment.
  6. There is wisdom in the old adage, “the simpler the better.” While it’s certainly possible to get elaborate and expansive with creating grief rituals, in many ways the most simple and fundamental acts are the most meaningful.
  7. A useful principle in working with grief and mourning is that there are phases to the overall process. While these phases do not constitute a standard or mechanical lock-step model, there is a discernible pattern that applies to most of us. Grief rituals often vary in their nature and expression depending upon which phase of the process we are currently inhabiting. That is, the way we conceive, construct, and make use of the grief ritual will likely be different given what phase is being experienced (I will explore the phases of grief and mourning concept in my next blog entry).

In closing, I’d like to share three examples of grief rituals from my practice. Each is specific to the individual and designed in dialogue with myself as collaborator. My goal is not to inject my personal ideas, but rather to support what I am hearing as potentially meaningful enactments as they pertain to the loss experience unique to my client(s).

One of my clients lost her fiancee in an accident. In her grief, she decided to have a beer brewed in her deceased fiancee’s memory. Among many other hobbies, her fiancee loved to go to small craft beer pubs and try out different brews. As she recollected her experiences of and with him, and shared many of those detailed memories with me, she gradually designed her grief ritual. She found and worked closely with a brewer, designed a label, and named the batch of beer after her deceased fiancee. She then invited his surviving friends and family to have a drink in his honor and gifted them with a very special bottle of beer.

Another client whose wife died of cancer, decided after 6 years of mourning to stop wearing his wedding band. It was a difficult decision, but made sense and felt important to him. We explored the issue in counseling and he designed a grief ritual that entailed going to the very church in which he and his wife were married. After sitting in the sacred space for a time meditating, he approached the altar, placed the ring on it, and walked away.

Lastly, a client whose disabled child died of medical complications constructed a grief ritual for herself and her surviving children, which consisted of building a garden in their backyard in memory of their beloved daughter/sister.  The family spent many hours planning and enacting the ritual, giving it all the feeling and color of their cherished memories and expressions of loss and love.
In all cases, my clients were able to discuss and explore–with me as listener and collaborator–their many thoughts, feelings, sensations, and experiences before, during, and after their grief rituals were enacted. They found the process helpful in terms of giving shape and reflection to the heart of their loss experiences.