Private Rituals

One of my favorite magazines brought to mind the importance of ritual in life: maintaining structure and order, preserving values and beliefs, celebrating milestones or honoring personal or local community. Several definitions give meaning to “ritual”:

(1) “A ceremony or action performed in a customary way” (family members having pizza in front of the TV every Sunday night), (2) “sacred, customary ways of celebrating a religion or cultural heritage” (a bar or bat mitzvah), and (3) “a time-honored tradition” (watching the Viking-Packers football game or eating angel food birthday cake with Seven Minute Frosting).

Often we take rituals for granted—thinking that they will automatically be part of our life. That is, until the lead person or family who organizes the ritual chooses to discontinue or is no longer able to do so. Suddenly the ritual becomes hugely important. Resistance. Telling and retelling, expanding on the facts. Victimization. This happened to a family who had an in-ground pool. Every Fourth of July, they held a huge open house with grilled food, live entertainment, and swimming. They invited the entire neighborhood. One summer the family decided to vacation in Italy. Neighborhood expectations were not prepared for the shock. Whenever we begin to feel entitled, Ego puts on a show that is less than pretty.

The type of bond, length of relationship, circumstances, emotional and physical attributes and a host of other elements provide variables that make it impossible to determine exactly how someone will respond to loss. Responses are as unique as the people involved. However, an overarching thread is present. Interestingly enough, whether we are the person dying or the one left behind, we feel a loss of control.

During the days leading up to my mother’s death, she had called out to family members by name that had preceded her in death; her soul was traveling in-between this plane and beyond. She also wanted to know if she needed to pack a suitcase, take her pillow, and catch a bus. Her earnest questions indicated a childlike confusion and loss of control. Those around her were also feeling loss of control, trying to give her a response that was both understandable and reassuring.

All of us, regardless of where we are in life, are steadily losing control. It is wise to acknowledge that fact. Those who are actively dying have special gifts to share as we approach them with softened hearts. They give us the urgency to acknowledge our own mortality and to live our lives more fully. Their inner nature speaks to our compassion, and we can apply that compassion to others in grief. Sometimes, when we’re lucky, those actively dying will share wisdom from their heart which forges deeper bonds. Finally, observing and being with them reminds us that there is clearly a greater force at work beyond life on this plane.

Harvard Business School researchers Michael I. Norton and Francesca Gino have been studying how people respond to grief and why some individuals are able to move beyond grief more quickly than others. They found that those who seemed to be more resilient had created their own private rituals. One example was a woman who continued to wash the family car every Saturday, just as her deceased husband had done for years. Another person “gathered all of the pictures taken as a couple during their relationship and ‘then destroyed them into small pieces (even the ones I really liked!), and then burned them in the park where we first kissed.’”

Even a small change in attitude or self talk can be used as a ritual.

After her mother’s death, Charlotte L. Kent, 19, wrote regarding her college music theory class that she “simply could not understand it.” Her good friend’s advice was “Yet. You can’t understand it yet.” Charlotte went on to apply this advice to her life, especially with the thoughts and words she was using to express her grief. She began to add yet to the ends of sentences. “I don’t want to laugh—yet. I don’t want to stop crying—yet. I don’t want to let go—yet.” This reminded her that she was a fully in control work-in-progress.

~ “Readers Write: Leaps of Faith,” The Sun, March 2017, p.31.

These actions offered symbolic value to the persons participating in them and the actions were completed privately. Little rituals like favorite foods or preparation methods, a favorite wine, a happy or scary story, jokes repeatedly told, an accessory or flannel shirt, or sayings can offer comfort and a bit of control. Solo rituals do not have to be explained, approved, or tracked. Over time, we let go of them. They have served their purpose. We are able to move on without expectations or wishing things were different.


From a higher vantage: In grief, are you or a friend in need of a ritual? Choose the most memorable aspect about the loss you are grieving. Turn it into a private ritual, one that you don’t have to explain, gain approval, or feel a need to track. Give it all of your heart.


© 2017 Barbara L. Krause

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.