Ritual. When you read the word, what comes to mind? If I were to take a guess, I’d say maybe a religious ceremony. Possibly a wedding, baptism, or funeral? Perhaps a graduation or military ceremony. It isn’t that there aren’t small, private, everyday rituals we all practice. But often when we hear the words “ritual and grief”, we think of things that are:
Rituals that fall into those categories, they can be an important part of grief and mourning. Heck, they can be an important part of life in general. Whether it is sitting Shiva, attending a funeral, holding a remembrance ceremony, or even an annual memorial golf tournament or 5k, these rituals serve many important purposes including (but not limited) to:
- Bringing together people who loved and cared about the person.
- Allowing a sense of purpose, control and distraction immediately following the death.
- Providing spiritual connection and comfort.
- Creating intergenerational and ancestral ties.
- Providing ongoing time and space come together to remember.
Funny thing is, with all the wonderful things about those type of rituals, sometimes they aren’t what you want or need at a given moment. There can be countless reasons for this, everything from feeling overwhelmed by grieving and mourning with others, to feeling alienated from formal traditions, or exhausted by the prospect of planning.
When you participate in a ritual and it isn’t what you want or need at that moment, you can feel like you’re grieving “wrong”. You feel like you should have found comfort at a funeral or memorial, but you didn’t. You feel like you should have felt supported by the many friends and family grieving with you, when you just felt alone. Today we’re here to fill you in on a little secret: these traditional, public and communal rituals are not the only meaningful rituals in grief, not by a long shot! That’s good news for all grievers, but especially those of us who don’t love public, traditional rituals. So settle on in for some thoughts on ritual, even if you don’t think of yourself as a ritual person.
The Ritual Research
A few years back some researchers from an institution you just may have heard of before, Harvard University, were interested in learning more about ritual. Michael Norton and Francesca Gino studied grievers, looking at how ritual impacted them in their grief. When they started their research they expected to learn about public rituals, interested how those might impact those coping with loss. What they found was unexpected. When surveying grievers they found the majority of them did not cite public or communal rituals as the most meaningful in their grief at all. What they found instead was:
- Only 10 percent of the rituals people cited as meaningful were public
- Only 5 percent of the rituals people cited as meaningful were religious
- Only 5 percent of rituals were performed communally
Interesting, right? That means 90% were private, 95% were secular, and 95% were done individually (I know, I know . . . you can all do math too). To quote Norton and Gino’s study, most of the meaningful rituals people described, “were private, “everyday” rituals that were unique to an individual – as opposed to publicly performed, commonly-utilized rituals.”
Researchers allowed participants to self-define rituals, and the examples people shared of everyday rituals ran the gamut. They included things you might expect, like lighting a candle on the anniversary of a loved one’s death, to more specific and personal rituals. Participants said things like, “I washed his car every week as he used to do” and, “in these fifteen years, I have been going to hairdressers to cut my hair every first Saturday of the month as we used to do together”. What they found far less frequently were descriptions of rituals like funerals and memorials.
We get it that research doesn’t always feel the most helpful or relevant. In fact, especially early in grief, it can feel a little obnoxious to imagine some detached researchers sitting around studying grievers like a bunch of guinea pigs. But some really useful stuff does come from the ivory towers of academia every now and then. We think this is one of those times. This research can be a very validating reminder that those quirky personal grief rituals you have, that you may have thought were a little weird, are actually very normal and healthy! You can check out their first study here, but some of the takeaway reminders from the initial and follow-up research that we find pretty helpful are:
Public and private rituals are helpful. Why? According to Norton and Gino, they give a sense of control in situations that are totally outside of one’s control. One isn’t better than the other, so find what works for you. Sometimes a public ritual is just what you need, other times it is the stuff you do solo.
Rituals don’t have to be fixed. Sometimes a ritual done just once can create a sense of comfort and control. As a griever you might decide to repeat a ritual, not repeat it, or adapt it over time. All normal and all can be helpful.
Rituals that seem can seem like they would make people sad actually bring comfort. So next time someone makes you feel like your ritual is a downer (think Toby in This Is Us) you can feel good knowing Norton and Gino’s follow-up research found greater comfort among those who practiced ritual than those who didn’t.
Ritual can occasionally become problematic. If you are someone who struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Gino and Norton not that rituals can be a little risky. If you realize that a ritual is starting to feel like and obsession or compulsion (it is hard to keep yourself from doing it and/or you are doing it when it interferes with or negatively impacts your life in some way) you should talk to a mental health professional for support keeping things in check.
Embracing Personal Rituals
A while back we asked WYG reader to share their personal rituals on our Facebook. We got so many amazing responses, things that speak to the unique and individual nature of the rituals that mean something to us. I’ve got lots of little ones, like the fact that I never turn down a piece of coconut cake. Whether it’s at a restaurant or a coffee shop, if it’s on the menu I order it. Because coconut cake always reminds me of my dad and family and childhood (even though I didn’t really like coconut cake then) so it is my own little private ritual, that can happen almost anywhere.
We got tons of great ones on Facebook, but because this is a post about personal rituals we would love to collect more in the comments here – as inspiration, as a reminder that many of us have personal rituals, as a little tribute to your loved one, or for whatever reason you may care to share!
So leave a comment to share your personal, everyday ritual and, as always, subscribe to get our posts right to your inbox.
We wrote a book!
After writing online articles for What’s Your Grief
for over a decade, we finally wrote a tangible,
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss goes on sale September 27, 2022, but you can preorder at the following retailers: