Grieving and the importance of ritual
Grief is a powerful emotion that can easily overwhelm people, which is why all cultures have sacred grief rituals.
Healing rituals can help us process change, transitions, shock, and loss — yet in our modern world, many of us have lost our vital connections to the ritual traditions that help us create sacred space for the incredible shock of death and loss. We’ve moved our dead out of our parlors (parlors in traditional homes were actually built for wakes!) and into funeral homes – and many of us have lost our connection to community-based grief rituals.
However, we all witness people creating roadside shrines at accident scenes, or impromptu candlelight vigils for sudden deaths in their communities, so it’s clear that we still have a tremendous underground capacity for grief rituals.
Fortunately, we can create new and meaningful grief rituals for ourselves and our loved ones, even if we’ve lost connection to our heritage.
The questions for grief are What must be mourned? and How do I honor what was lost?
Many cultures have created rituals to honor their dead, and to help people make the transition into life after loss.
The healing flow of grief rituals
In most funeral traditions, certain elements appear with regularity. There is usually a “shrine of the dead,” whether it’s the actual coffin or body, a shrine or altar, a photo, an image, or a collection of items associated with the dead person.
Mourners nearly always gather in groups separate from the shrine, and those closest to the dead are given a position of honor nearest to the shrine. Music is often used to delineate the space of mourning, and people often speak out to the mourners about the dead, usually by standing with their backs to the shrine (but not too close at this time) and facing the area of mourning.
When the mourners are united in their collective remembrance of the dead – with their stories, their griefs, their songs, their laughter, their regrets, and their tears – they often move forward individually and visit or commune with the dead by paying their respects directly to the shrine.
When the mourners make their final goodbyes, they either return to the area of mourning and close the ritual with song or sermon, or leave the space of direct mourning and gather to share food and companionship.
These rituals help us create sacred space for loss
Each aspect of a grief ritual helps delineate the dead from the living by creating a sacred space for the dead and a sacred community for the mourners to hold onto in this world.
If these ritual components are overlooked, the delineation becomes blurred, and the mourners essentially cross over to a middle place where they don’t truly release their dead or join fully into life again.
Ritual exists to help us navigate and survive the necessary (and often wrenching) passages of our lives.
The unfortunate disconnection from meaningful ritual that many of us have experienced not only strips us of community and the sacred, but also of our ability to live, love, feel, and grieve fully.
And funerals are often not healing rituals
Most of us have participated in funeral ceremonies (which are often excruciatingly stilted), but I think very few of us have truly experienced the full release of our losses and our dearly departed into the next world – because we haven’t been given the time or the space to make the profound movements grief requires of us.
In many areas of modern culture, funerals usually last a few hours, which simply does not allow enough time for mourners to create true communal space, let alone pay their full respects to the dead.
With my husband Tino, I had the great good fortune to participate in a number of indigenous West African grief rituals with the late, great Sobonfu Somé, who was a ritual keeper from the ancient Dagara tribe.
This grief ritual lasted for two full days, but in Sobonfu’s village, they last for three. In my first ritual with Sobonfu, I didn’t think there was any way to maintain direct grief and mourning for an entire weekend, but now, I don’t see how anyone can truly grieve in less time than that.
The practice for grief is steeped in ritual because grief is a lengthy and profound process; however, if you can simply focus your attention in your body, you can gracefully move into your own grief.
Your body is a brilliant mourner, and if you trust it, it will convey you into the river of tears and bring you back out safe again. Your body knows grief and will carry you through the process if you put your trust in it.
A healing ritual for grief
A central task during grief is to stay integrated by grounding and centering yourself instead of rushing off into distractions. Another important task is to create a shrine for the dead (or the loss) so that you can create a container for your mourning and some delineation between yourself and your loss.
A healing shrine or sacred space can help people do what I call “disembodying without dissociating.” They can get some distance from the situation without running away from it, and they can begin to heal.
In a very real sense, a good shrine (or altar) can help people create a little bit of distance from their intense emotions — so that they can catch their breath, yet not suppress, repress, or dissociate from their emotions or the situation.
Grief shrines can help you hold your losses in a healthy way so that you can locate your sense of grounding and self-soothing, even in the midst of shock and loss.
If your grief relates to physical death, your shrine can contain photos, personal items, or reminders of your dearly departed.
If your grief relates to the death of a relationship, a goal, an idea, your health, your trust, or that which you never had, your shrine can contain any items that symbolize your loss.
It’s important to place something disposable in your grief shrine – something that can eventually be buried or burnt in a funeral ceremony – so that you can signify the end of this ritual as clearly as you signify its beginning and its unfolding.
It’s important to know that you’re not ending your grief. Grief will continue, but a ritual needs to have a clear beginning and a clear ending.
Inviting community into your grief ritual
Your grief process can be undertaken individually, or in a community or family group. If you include others, let them place their own items in the grief shrine as well, and make sure that their access to the shrine is not hindered.
If you can place this grief shrine in an accessible, though private (as opposed to central) part of your home, you can delineate an area of direct mourning that you (and others) can enter and leave as you move through the layers of your grief. In this way, you can maintain your shrine for as long as you need to grieve.
Two days, two weeks, two months – it doesn’t matter how long the process takes (mourning periods differ from person to person, and from culture to culture). What matters is that you have a secluded physical space where you can work through your grief in your own time, sanctify your loss in your own way, and honor your losses and your dead with the honesty of your emotions and the quality of your mourning.
The downward movement of grief
When you move into your grief, you may feel a tremendous weight upon you. If you don’t understand what’s going on, you may feel crushed and suffocated by loss – and you may dissociate in response. If you can remember that the movement required in grief is downward, you’ll understand the necessity of this heaviness, which anchors you and presses you into your body so that you can feel the weight – and the depth – of the situation.
When you move through grief in an intentional and ritual-supported way, you’ll feel pain, but it won’t crush you; your heart will break open, but it won’t break apart.
If you can send your grief – in tears, in rages, in laughter, or in total silence – into your shrine, you and your heart will become conduits through which the waters of life can flow. If you let the river flow through you, your heart will not be emptied; it will be expanded, and you’ll have more capacity to love, and more room to breathe.
When you’re done with your grief ritual (you can create others when this one is complete), you won’t need or want to erase the memory of your loss – instead, your loss will become a part of you: a part of your ancestral lineage, your strength, and your recognition of the fragility of life.
You won’t become bulletproof and grief-hardened – instead, you’ll soften into the true strength that arises when you connect to grief and loss in sacred ways.
Closing this grief ritual (until you need another)
When your grieving ritual feels done for now – when you have no more intense emotions to send into the shrine, and when you feel that you’ve achieved some closure – you (and anyone else involved in your grief ritual) should take some part of the shrine and wrap it or seal it in a way that signifies closure to you.
Take this bundle and burn or bury it ceremonially, and dismantle your shrine completely (you can continue to display photos or items from the shrine, but you should remove them from the shrine area and place them in new configurations).
It’s important to create a clear end for your grief ritual so that the parts of you that feed on imagery will be able to demarcate the end of this moment in your mourning process.
It’s also very healing to mark your closure with music and a food-based celebration of some kind.
Honoring grief in others
To create sacred space for grief in others, it’s vital not to rush in and pull them out of the river – not to sermonize or philosophize about death, the past, or the future.
Grieving people need to be treated as sacred vessels through which the river of life is flowing in all its power and all its beauty – as people who have one foot in this world, and one foot in the next. Mourners are in deep ritual space, and your behavior should be reverent of that.
Your task as an assistant is not to collect and process the mourner’s grief in your own body, but to create a container and sacred space that allows the person to honor their emotions, their losses, and their dearly departed.
This is the time for you to hold the world at bay and let the mourner fully experience his or her grief in words, in sobbing, in rages, in complete silence, in despair, in fits of laughter, in denial and blaming – or in whatever way the mourner chooses.
If you can see yourself as an assistant to grief instead of as a counselor, you’ll be able to take your proper place in this ritual.
If you can help the mourner set up a grief shrine or area of mourning (with music, photos or sacred objects, candles, privacy, or anything that occurs to you or the mourner), you’ll be able to establish sacred space for the mourner and yourself.
When a ceremonial container exists, the mourner can pour their words and emotions into the shrine – instead of into you (shrines also help people achieve some separation from intense emotions — without repressing or dissociating from them).
The mourner may want to preserve the shrine and continue grieving alone – now that there’s a sacred space for grief.
The mourner may also want to read through the Grief chapter in The Language of Emotions to gain input on how to proceed.
Honor the mourner’s wishes and give thanks to the shrine. Working through grief (even as an assistant) changes you, and when you can honor those changes, you can integrate them gracefully. Thank you.
Thank you for making room for the healing heart of grief, and thank you for bringing more sacredness to our waiting world.