The Surprising Truth About Ritual and Grief

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:

  • Public
  • Communal
  • Fixed/consistent
  • Religious

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.

So What?

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.

May 31, 2017

15 responses on "The Surprising Truth About Ritual and Grief"

  1. I got a heart shaped tatto on my wrist with my husband’s initials; he died suddenly in 2015 after 20+ years of marriage. His birthday was June 17, and any time the clock reads 6:17 (or near it if I miss it) or if something reminds me of him, I kiss his initials on my wrist.

  2. My brother was my best friend and he died in my guest bedroom a year and a half ago. I bought him lots of meaningful coffee cups over the years which he brought back to me. Every morning I drink from one of the cups I gave him. I wear his sunglasses and once in awhile I sleep in the guest bedroom on the bed he died in. Makes me feel close to him although I know it sounds strange.

  3. My husband died nearly 6 months ago unexpectedly and traumatically. Each night I wear his wedding band on my thumb and tell him I love him before I sleep. His ashes sit in his breakfast chair during the day whilst I’m at work, the living room with me during the evening and the bedroom with me during the night. I sing him the chorus from the song We’re All Alone constantly even though my singing voice is terrible.

  4. My husband died 2 1/2 years ago and yet I still sleep on my side of the bed and left my husband’s side for him.

  5. What a wonderful article!! My husband of 26 years killed himself over a year ago and it has been very hard. I was lucky to find some very awesome therapy groups to help me put a little ground under my feet. And I have constantly lamented the fact that our society doesn’t have grief rituals to help me. I look at other cultures who allow the bereaved to cry and wail for 7 days or support the bereaved in ways unheard of where I live. At one point, I signed up for a grief ritual for about 30 people that was in another state, but ultimately canceled because of some of the reasons mentioned above about public rituals: too much planning, overwhelming feelings, afraid of not having support during such a raw time. And then I stumble on this article! Grief rituals can be anything *I* want. And very small. And very helpful. I guess I have been doing some of these things without even realizing it. I returned to scrapbooking the many fun camping trips our family took together; I created an altar where I put pictures and momentos that remind me of my husband; and I started watching family videos. There are many other small things I do all the time that fall into the ritual category. I am going to start honoring these times and honoring myself as I do them. Thank you for redefining “rituals” for me and validating the fact that it is OK to not need public rituals to heal.

  6. One of my rituals is to use the same alarm that he hused to wake up! It gently reminds me of him and I start my days with a smile because of it!

  7. What a beautiful compilation of the hearts of hurting mommas. I just survived my first Mother’s Day since losing my little girl. The first Mother’s Day I celebrated, a year prior, I celebrated knowing I was only a few weeks away from saying goodbye to my little girl. Mother’s Day will always be difficult. Learning to find beauty in the pain is so difficult; but it is possible.

  8. It has been one year and 12 days since our daughter passed away. Our baby girl had gotten a terminal diagnosis five months prior, during which time we started many traditions that we would be able to carry on after losing her. One of our favorites is for Valentine’s Day, we bake cookies and deliver them to friends and family. It helps us take the attention off of ourselves, and focus on loving others. Her symbol during her short but precious life was a poppy. Friends and family have planted poppies in their gardens in honor of her, and always flood facebook with pictures of the poppies when the bloom. Simple traditions and rituals can help us focus on the beautify life contains, despite the despair.

  9. We lost our daughter 4 months ago. She was 1 year old. She was my little piece of sunshine in the morning and always greeted me with smiles. So every morning since she has passed away I talk to her while lighting a candle that sits in her little shoe. I wear a necklace with an imprint of her thumb on the charm. I feel like she’s closer to my heart when I wear it.

  10. My father died almost exactly two years ago…he loved nature and wildlife, particularly birds and he knew all their names and calls. Over the last few years of his cancer, he particularly adored the red kites that would swirl and mew over the farm where my parents lived. Sometimes there were almost 20 of them circling in the sky. Now, whenever I hear or see a red kite I can’t help but think it’s my Dad coming to visit and watch over me…so I always say ‘Hi Dad!’ to them, just in case…it does help somehow…

  11. I have pictures of my son beside my bed. Every night I look at them at say Goodnight, Tommy (or boy or buddy). When I see the moon, I say Hello Moon, Hello Tommy. Just little things that keep his name on my lips.

  12. Since the death of my son I have found myself turning to rituals to get me through the days. I actually didn’t realize that this is what I’ve been doing until I read this article. And I’m alright with it. The first ritual of my day is to sit on the side of my bed with my son’s beautiful smiling face looking at me from my night stand and get my Grief in Six Words together in my head. If I’m unable to post it immediately at least I have it ready. My next ritual is to get ready for the day. If I don’t get dressed as soon as I get up I’m in my pajamas for the day…sad and unable to function. Just before I leave the house, which I try to do everyday so I’m not in my PJs, is to put on my son’s watch. It doesn’t keep time. Just before he died he had given it to me to be repaired. I haven’t. Wearing it helps me to hold on to him. I can put my hand on it and “feel him” any time I want. I guess that could be counted as another ritual. My son died on the 12th of the month. On each 12th I post on his face book page a few words to which all those that love and miss him add their own. He’s resting eternally at the National Cemetery where he is surrounded by his military family. I take flowers every 12th, sit with my son , play the song #1 For Me, a song he sent me through email. After my visit with my son I add water from the gallon I bring with me to any vase of flowers that I see needs some help to thrive a few days longer. My days are full of rituals!! My rituals save me. Thank you for being part of my rituals.

  13. We scattered my husbands’ ashes at his favorite sunset watching spot… on Delaware Bay…. we frequently go to view the sunset and “see Daddy “….

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