Lynne Ann DeSpelder talks with Dr. Heidi Horsley about death rituals during the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC) conference. DeSpelder is a counselor, professor of psychology, and co-author of the book The Last Dance: Encountering Death and Dying, which is now in its eighth edition. A leader in the industry, DeSpelder got into the field of death and dying like many others: It stemmed from first-hand experience. Rituals that are rooted in history are rich in our society today.

In a recent visit to the Smithsonian, DeSpelder discovered that making a memorial quilt has been in practice for hundreds of years. It’s especially common when infants and babies pass away. It helps the dead stay a part of the lives of a living. The AIDS Quilt Project is a contemporary version of such a practice. Creating rituals can come from any source, and many of her students have shared their own rituals with her.

Rites of Passage

Bereavement, as described in the textbook, comes from a term meaning “shorn off.” Many people cut their hair when a loved one passes. It’s common in Native American cultures, India, and other demographics around the world. Others wear the clothing of their loved ones long after they’ve passed. Still others find that learning to do things that previously only their loved ones did can be a rite of passage.

You can find rituals that are practical, those which are not, and it all comes down to what helps the healing process for each individual. Fire rituals are very common in most cultures. DeSpelder suggests choosing two items. One will be consumed, and the other will be changed. The changed item represents survivorship, while the consumed item is a way of letting a loved one go to the next phase—though the item is not necessarily gone entirely.


Heidi Horsley

Dr. Heidi Horsley is an international grief expert, licensed psychologist, and social worker. She is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Open to Hope Foundation, one of the largest internet grief resources, with over 2 million yearly visitors. She hosts the award-winning Open to Hope cable television show and podcast. Dr. Heidi is an adjunct professor at Columbia University. She serves on the ​National Board of Directors for The Compassionate Friends, the largest peer to peer support organization in the world. She also serves on the National Advisory Board for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). TAPS has served over 50,000 military families who have suffered a loss. In addition, she serves on the National Advisory Board for the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation, and the Children's Brain Tumor Foundation. Dr. Heidi is on the VIP section of Marquis Who's Who in America, Madison Who's Who, and Who's Who of American Women. Dr. Heidi has co-authored eight books, including; Spouse Loss; Fresh Grief; Inspirational Stories for Handling the Holidays After Loss; Inspirational Stories of Healing After Loss; Real Men Do Cry; A Quarterbacks Inspiring Story of Tackling Depression & Surviving Suicide; Teen Grief Relief: Parenting with Understanding Support and Guidance; and Signs and Hope From Heaven. She has appeared on the ABC television show 20/20, has been interviewed by numerous media outlets, and has been a guest on hundreds of radio shows as well as quoted in dozens of media publications, including the Metro World News, Washington Post, Time Magazine, Newsday, Money Magazine, and New York Daily News. Dr. Heidi is also the author of numerous articles and academic book chapters. Dr. Heidi gives keynotes, presentations, and workshops throughout the country, and teaches continuing education workshops for health care professionals on support following trauma and tragedy. For 10 yrs., Dr. Heidi worked as a co-investigator for the FDNY-Columbia University Family Guidance Program; a study which looked at traumatic loss in families of firefighters killed in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. Through this 9/11 study, Dr. Heidi provided ongoing intervention and follow-up to firefighter widows and their children, and facilitated groups for bereaved siblings. In addition, Dr. Heidi supervised the school social work staff at Harlem Democracy Charter Schools in NYC for four years. Dr. Heidi's early career included work in a variety of clinical settings, including; Manhattan Psychiatric Center, California Pacific Medical Center Psychiatry Dept., University of San Francisco Mental Health Clinic, St. Lukes-Roosevelt Hospital Psychiatry Dept., and Hope Haven Residential Treatment Center in New Orleans. Her doctoral dissertation was on the sudden death of a sibling. Her academic credentials include a doctorate in Psychology (PsyD) from the University of San Francisco; a Masters degree in social work (LMSW) from Columbia University, and a Masters degree in mental health counseling (MS) from Loyola University, in New Orleans. Dr. Heidi splits her time between NYC and Tucson AZ.

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