Creating Rituals to Move Through Grief

Hand lighting candle with long matchWe humans like things to stay the same. Even if we are open to change, change can be very difficult. There is nothing more disruptive than the death of someone you love, someone whose existence is part and parcel to your own. When those people die, we are left floundering. That person may be your child, your husband or wife, your companion, your friend, your sister, or your brother. The depth and breadth of your grief depends on the connectedness you feel to the person who has died—your spiritual, emotional, or physical connectedness, and often, your perception of your very existence. The more intertwined your life with a person, the more affected you are by your experience of grief when that person dies.

When someone you love dies, you experience deep, soul-wrenching pain. Your life changes. You change. Everything changes. Things are very different than you thought they would be. Yes, it hurts terribly. But there is nothing wrong with you. Grief is not pathological. Grief is normal. It totally sucks, but it is normal. Grief is a part of life—a very painful, difficult part of life. And it flat out just sometimes sucks, but it is normal. There are things you can do to help grief along its way; one thing I believe can be the most helpful is to engage in ritual.

What Is a Ritual?

Rituals are actions done in purposeful ways that symbolize something much more than the acts themselves. Rituals are made up of actions that represent ideas, thoughts, myths, or beliefs about a particular thing. Rituals give purpose to action and always serve to connect us to something else, generally something greater than our own solitary selves. We may engage in ritual as we seek peace, clarity of mind, or to become more grounded. We may seek connectedness to family, a particular person, our culture, society, traditions, ancestors, or even to our own selves.

We perform mini-rituals daily. Most of us have a specific routine associated with preparing for bed each night; we may wear a particular piece of jewelry or clothing for specific occasions; or we may make our beds each morning. We might repeat a particular phrase when we make a toast, or perhaps we close our texts or emails in a certain way. Whether small or elaborate, the rituals we engage in tell stories about who we are, who we want to be, and what is important to us in our lives. Your own rituals may be derived from your family, culture, ethnicity, or a particular religious or spiritual tradition. No matter what stories they tell, rituals always provide structure, meaning, and connectedness.

Perhaps the most significant thing that rituals provide is a certain order to an existence that otherwise might be full of confusion and chaos. Human life is full of confusion and uncertainty and, undoubtedly, the most chaotic times in our lives are the times when we are grieving. Grief is chaos. Times of grief are when we need ritual most. Unfortunately, in our society, there are few rituals that are specifically designed for grieving people, aside from the funeral or memorial service. These are necessary and helpful, but grieving people need more than a couple of rituals to help quell the deep chaos the death of a loved one can bring.

Create Your Own Rituals

Creating your own personal rituals to remember your loved ones allows you to access and work through your grief in a safe and constructive way. Some people plan rituals in honor of a loved one’s birthday or an anniversary. Others choose to express their grief through small daily or weekly rituals. A ritual can be as elaborate as a public memorial service or as small as a quiet moment alone with your loved one’s picture. Some examples of small rituals include:

  • Lighting a candle at certain, special times of the day or week to remind you of your loved one (for example, at dinnertime to represent sharing meals with him or her)
  • Creating a memory scrapbook and filling it with photographs, letters, postcards, notes, or other significant memorabilia from your life together
  • Spending time listening to your loved one’s favorite music or creating a special mix of music that reminds you of that person
  • Watching his or her favorite movie
  • Planting a tree or flowers in your loved one’s memory
  • Making a donation to a charity that your loved one supported
  • Visiting your loved one’s burial site
  • Carrying something special that reminds you of your loved one that you can take out and hold when you feel the need
  • Creating a work of art in your loved one’s memory
  • Preparing and eating a special meal in honor of your loved one
  • Developing a memorial ritual for your loved one on special days or whenever you wish

Some people engage in the smaller, spontaneous rituals listed above on a regular basis. You may do something similar, or you might choose to create a more structured ritual. You may decide to create a special ritual only one time, or you might decide to hold your ritual (or some version of it) on a regular basis—daily, weekly, monthly, or on special days like birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, or other special occasions.

When selecting activities for a more structured grief ritual, choose specific things to mark the opening and the closing of your ritual:

  • Light a special candle used only for your ritual purposes
  • Light some incense
  • Read or say aloud an inspirational verse, poem, or prayer
  • Sing a song
  • Chant
  • Play a particular selection of music
  • Ring a chime or a bell

Clearly marking the beginning and the end of the ritual will help you transition into a different frame of mind at the opening, and it will signal that it is time to shift consciousness back to the mundane at the closing.

Remain Open: Do What Feels Comfortable to You

Before starting the ceremony, take a few deep breaths to center yourself. Remember that it is okay if you cry. This is your space and time to express your grief in whatever ways you need to do so. If all you can do is cry during your planned ritual time, most likely, that is what you need to do. Whatever happens in between the opening and closing of the ritual is completely up to you. You can have an activity planned, or you may be the sort of person who feels more comfortable planning nothing at all. Perhaps you’ll choose to do whatever you are moved to do once you are in the ritual space—you might wish to simply sit quietly for as long as you need to, listen to music, spend time crying, look through photos of your loved one, meditate, pray, or read some healing literature or a sacred text. It is okay to remain open and do whatever comes to you in the moment.

Sometimes you may feel the need to communicate something to your loved one. The sacred, safe space of a ritual is an ideal place to do this. When you need to communicate, you may choose to speak aloud, meditate on your thoughts silently, or write your thoughts in a letter. Consider incorporating the burning, burying, or floating of the letter that you write in a future ritual.

You may simply feel the need to release energy in your ritual space. Yell, scream, or cry as much as you need to. If you’re working through feelings of anger in your grief, keep pillows nearby that you can hit, punch, or throw. Tearing and ripping paper or stomping cardboard boxes can also help release anger. You may wish to include some movement, dance, or vocal expression such as singing, chanting, or yelling. You might want to beat on a drum or play some other instrument to release energy and emotion through sound.

Consider Inviting Others

You can conduct your grief rituals alone or with others. Your ritual could be an ideal time to share your grief with friends and family members grieving the same loss. If you invite others to join your ritual, you may wish to ask each person to share something about your lost loved one—a memory, story, or thought. Ask guests to bring something to read or share as part of the ritual, and invite them to participate in any ritual activity you develop, such as chanting, drumming, or letter-writing.

Continue Your Ritual as Needed

Conduct your grief rituals for as long and as often as you need to. As you heal, you may find that your need to engage in ritual for your grief will wane. Continuing to maintain some of your small rituals, such as continuing to carry your loved one’s photograph or wearing a particular sentimental piece of jewelry may serve you. Your more elaborate rituals may change over time, or you may feel the need to hold them only on special occasions, such as birthdays or anniversaries. If you have created a shrine or altar that you have used in your rituals or kept in your home, you may find that you wish to make changes to it over time. This is okay, too. The changes mean that your personal process through grief is progressing, and your rituals have helped you move from chaos and pain to wholeness and stability.

I hope that this has helped you think about ritual and how you might use it as you move through your own grief process. Please feel free to comment about how ritual has helped you, what kinds of ritual activity has helped you—large or small—and what your thoughts are on engaging in ritual to help us move toward healing.

© Copyright 2011 by Karla Helbert, MS, LPC, therapist in Richmond, Virginia. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Dane

    June 27th, 2011 at 3:58 PM

    Rituals offer you a sense of comfort and normalcy in a world that can feel upside down. This especially happens when you are grieving over the loss of someone important in your life. They can give you a sense of feeling like there are things that still matter, and also things that you have some control over. Plus they can help you to reconnect to the memory of the one you have lost. It gives you special time to remember the good times and to help you get through this difficult period.

  • Dan

    June 27th, 2011 at 7:39 PM

    Visiting the place of my brother’s burial feels like I am close to him. It gives me peace and I not only go there on his birthday but also wen I am stressed and honestly I feel better when I visit the place.

  • Nancy T

    June 28th, 2011 at 4:34 AM

    For me still celebrating my son’s birthday every year has kept me grounded.
    I know that some people would find it morbid but for me it lets me still feel close to him and confirm that One day we will see each other again.
    Those birthdays have now gone from sweet to bittersweet but it gives me a way to honor him.

  • Tammy

    June 28th, 2011 at 11:57 AM

    Allowing myself a time each week to remember and grieve is immensely helpful. I haven’t thought of it as a ritual, but it is. I wear my father’s T-shirts during my walks, which is my ritual time. I feel closer to him especially at those times.

  • Karla

    Karla

    June 28th, 2011 at 1:47 PM

    Nancy–We also celebrate our son’s birthday every year, including a cake as well as balloons, which always release at the end of the day. It is absolutely not morbid–anyone who thinks it is has never experienced the death of a child. Sending love and light to you…

  • Vu Z

    June 29th, 2011 at 4:16 AM

    I was close to my aunt who left us last year and I didnt even realize it but started reading from her mini library and have been quite addicted to it.I feel comfortable when I read those books.I didn’t realize it was almost like connecting with my dearest aunt again through those books until I read this article and thought about what I do.

  • marti matthews

    June 29th, 2011 at 4:50 AM

    I ran into a good friend just yesterday who lost a child and she said that the only thing that gets her through her days sometimes are her visits to the child’s gravesite. She knows that there are people who think she is odd for continuing this ritual but she feels like she has abandoned her child and herself if she does not go and talk with her at least once a day. I guess I am on the fence about whether this is hurting or helping but I cannot say that I would not be doing the same exact thing if it had been my own child that I had to bury.

  • Karla

    Karla

    June 29th, 2011 at 12:08 PM

    Marti–I don’t know your friend, but having lost my own child and having spoken with and knowing many, many other bereaved parents, your friend’s going out to her child’s gravesite daily is not abnormal (in what is now her new normal). It is likely that this ritual really is, as she says, getting her through each day. Nothing actually “helps” when our children die. There are things that can be hurtful, but I would venture to say visiting the grave is not one of those things. She may need to visit the grave daily for a long time to come. That’s ok. It sounds like you are a good friend. The best thing you can do is simply to let her know you love her, you support her and that you can be there if she needs you to listen or to simply sit with her.

  • Karla

    Karla

    June 29th, 2011 at 12:10 PM

    VuZ–I am glad that you were able to recognize yourself and your own ritual in the piece. I know for me, my rituals, big and small, bring me great comfort. I hope you can continue to gain comfort and feel close to your aunt while reading her books.

  • Karla

    Karla

    June 29th, 2011 at 12:12 PM

    Tammy–what a lovely way to remember your father while you walk through nature. Grief truly is a process that demands ritual–and like you said, often we don’t even realize that what we are doing is engaging in rituals to help us heal and to maintain a connection to those we love. Thank you for sharing.

  • Anniecaroline

    August 9th, 2011 at 10:59 AM

    It is really helping to read what other people have to say about grief, and I especially liked this article about grief rituals. When Tony died, part of me died too, and even though I know he’s not really dead, there are definite ways in which he is now dead to me. It’s harder to communicate with him, but not impossible, but still, I’m human. I grieve his physical presense, they way he was, the wonderful things he used to say, be do…..So, I have three small circular oil lamps which are on a special tray. I light them and keep them burning whenever I think of it. I gave the idea to Tony myself when he asked me what to do about grieving for his mother. He was the one who bought the little oil lamps for her. Now I use them for him. I imagine he likes the light. I also wear his old t-shirts, an old ring of his I found in a box. I have prayer beads I wear and an ohm symbol in diamonds and a yin yang symbol. I dress myself in ways that I would never have dressed before. I’m looking forward to finding MORE rituals, tree planting, planting flowers. I keep Tony’s favorite plant on a special stand too. It’s all ritual. But this is article is right. It helps. Everything helps when I reach out for it. You’d think I’d get this even more, but I’m still grieving.

    Anniecaroline

  • Karla

    Karla

    September 6th, 2011 at 10:44 AM

    Anniecaroline–I just wanted to say that your rituals for your Tony are beautiful. Thanks so much for sharing with us. I am glad that your rituals bring you comfort.

  • Jan

    February 9th, 2012 at 8:32 AM

    My Mom passed away last week and I am lost. My heart is broken and I have never had to live without her in my life. I don’t want to go back to work.

  • Melissa

    September 14th, 2014 at 10:07 PM

    I know it’s been a long time since you posted your comment. I’m feeling the same way. My mom passed away Dec 3 2013 and she was all I had besides my kids. She was my best friend and we did everything together. She was my rock and always there for me, every single day. I love and miss her so much that no one would ever understand this pain if they haven’t been through this and had this close of a relationship. I know what you’re going through. How are you now?

  • Pauletta

    June 8th, 2012 at 7:07 PM

    Jan, I am so sorry about the loss of your mother. I was always the stoic type, rarely shedding tears for anything but anger and frustration — until my mother died, a mother who, for years, I didn’t get along with. Probably because we were so much alike. I’m grateful I made up with her before her death, and tho dementia had robbed her of the ability to speak in sentences, I know she understood, because she held my face in her hands with tears running down her face and kissed me.
    Anniecaroline, bless you and your rituals for your sweet Tony. It has been almost 2 years since my beloved Jerry died, and because of circumstances and my own deep shock, I am only now beginning to truly grieve his loss. I will consider rituals for us. I believe Jerry communicates to me through the clock that once hung in his office, but now in my bedroom. It’s supposed to chime hourly, but it does so only very sporadically, and always when I most need to “hear” from him. What seems to provide me the most comfort is working in the yard, pulling weeds and planting perrennials, as he loved to do.
    Grief is a long, lonely walk, and I continue putting one foot in front of the other, every evening, until I can again walk in the light of Life.

  • Evelyn

    June 12th, 2012 at 4:03 PM

    My soul mate, spouse, best friend, lover and everything passed away on May 14 2012. Grief sucks and it is a lonely process. I continue to talk to him looks for signs of his “Promise” to be waiting for me when it is my time. Our time was so short just 3 years together. We talked all night long when I was at work (midnights) (yes this man switched his schedule to be with me), I continue to write to him in the chat and then free type back from him to me (some think it is weird) it comforts me. Thanks for sharing your losses and rituals with me.
    Thanks

  • Judith

    May 28th, 2013 at 9:57 AM

    Thank you for your thoughtful, informative and sensitive article. I’ll be posting it on my Facebook page. :)

  • Karla

    May 28th, 2013 at 1:36 PM

    Thanks so much Judith! I’m glad you found it helpful~

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  • BE

    December 4th, 2015 at 9:33 AM

    My husband of 56yrs. passed away 6wks. ago and it feels like 6yrs. I feel like a piece of my heart is gone. The abscence of prescence is the worst thing. I don’t feel guilty but I sure do have a few regrets. So, make sure you don’t have any regrets with your loved ones.

  • Lily

    January 22nd, 2016 at 11:55 PM

    Beautiful article

  • Heather

    January 30th, 2016 at 12:32 AM

    My husband died on the 16th December 2015..he had just turned 65 two days before he died.he was supposed to come home from hospital on the Wednesday but he died on that day, We were married for 43 years.I biked out to his gravesite today . I don`t drive. it was 10.5 kms to the gravesite,I am going again tomorrow, I lay down beside my husbands grave and wept.I stayed there for one and half hours,, then I biked back home.I felt so much better. I am going again tomorrow.

  • Karla

    Karla

    August 16th, 2016 at 6:31 AM

    Heather, your comment at the end of your post–“I am going again tomorrow”–just touched my heart. I know this ritual for you brings a sense of connectedness with your beloved husband. And it’s good to know, I think think that eventually, as our grief changes and evolves, so do our rituals. They shift with us. Wishing you beautiful days for your rides.

  • Heather

    December 9th, 2016 at 4:57 PM

    I have his work uniform in the wardrobe still and his jeans and trackpants are still on the floor behind the door.. when he went to hospital her changed and left his clothes behind the door for when he comes back.. I havent moved them.I miss him so much.

  • Karla

    Karla

    December 12th, 2016 at 7:54 AM

    Heather ((((((((((HUGS))))))))))

  • Sonia

    July 23rd, 2016 at 11:37 AM

    Thank you for this article. It explains that I am not going crazy even though I feel I am. The day my mother died, half of me died. There is no greater pain in my life. She was my world and now my world is gone, just like that. A feeling that no words can describe came through me, a great feeling of knowing what her life was, of her own burdens and pains and motherhood as though I had experienced her very life in those seconds that went through me like a lightning rod. We were one. This pain is forever here. My chest hurts and my heart is always pulling. The daily moans and loud sighs of grief and the ensuing sobs are part of my routine, not to mention the yearning for her just like a baby crying for its mother. I found myself struggling with feelings of pain, loneliness and sadness for her and to find some comfort so my inner self wanted to just chant out to her and I have been doing just that every day. I try not to let other people hear me in case they think I am crazy. I do scream at her grave, I have to. I have to scream and tell her how much I miss her and love her. I beg her to give me a sign that there is something after death. Nobody can hear me except for the squirrels. Some people say it is all normal, it is a process to go through. It is hard for me to even think of this as a process. My mom is not a process. I still need my mum. I will always need her. She is my best friend, my one and only mother who loved me unconditionally and protected me and guided me. I LOVE YOU MUMMY.

  • Karla

    Karla

    August 16th, 2016 at 6:28 AM

    Sonia–I am so sorry to hear of the death of your mother and the pain you are going through. Of course you miss her. And yes, what you are going through is normal. I am so sorry though, that you are experiencing this pain.

  • Gaston P

    December 9th, 2016 at 3:10 PM

    I will have to share this with my friends and family. I always just have to remind myself that everything is ok and I’m doing just fine. I may not feel like it at the moment but I know that at some point I will be past whatever is going on and I will almost forget about the situation completely in time. Thank you for this article!

  • Karla

    Karla

    December 12th, 2016 at 7:53 AM

    Hi Gaston, Thank you so much for reading and for taking time to comment. You don’t say what you’re going through and that’s okay, but I would like to suggest that sometimes it is okay to just know that maybe everything is not okay. We can grieve and we can be in pain and know that perhaps ultimately, on universal level, everything is okay, but also in our own personal spheres, olften things are not okay. For example, while I have a really good life and love my family and my job and so much about the world is wondrous, and I am mostly a very happy person, everything is not okay. It will never be okay that my son died. And I am okay with the fact that everything will not ever be okay in my life because of that. I don’t know if you will completely forget about your situation in time as you say, but I do know that despite our not wanting tragedies that befall us to change who we are, they do shape who we become. I hope that whatever unfolds over time for you, that you find peace and love and joy in your life, and those things are indeed possible, even when bad things happen. Rituals help us to find some of that. Sending love and best wishes to you.

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