Several years ago, I was watching news coverage following the crash of a passenger plane that killed all on board. The plane actually crashed into the ocean so over the next few days, survivor families gathered at the shore nearest to where the plane had gone down to gather information, comfort one another, and engage in memorial rituals.
Some family members chartered helicopters to fly over the actual crash site; many survivors participated in impromptu candlelight vigils; literally hundreds joined together for a more formal ceremony that culminated in throwing wreaths of flowers onto the water at sunset. One broadcast journalist covering this particular event was overhead saying, “What’s wrong with these people? Why don’t they just go home and get on with their lives?”
For those of us who are bereaved, what we wouldn’t give for it to be that simple.
Acknowledging the reality of our loved one’s death takes both head work and heart work. Our heads know…but our hearts take so much more convincing. And that is one of the important roles of ritual – to help us re-experience the reality of our loved one’s death in a structured environment. Those rituals may be public (such as a funeral), or private (as when you spend time in your loved one’s bedroom with your nose buried in their t-shirts). They may be planned or spontaneous.
They all say the same thing:”Yes, this really happened.”
For some, the notion of ritual either feels like something primitive and strange, or like something dry and boring, devoid of meaning. Our rituals need not be either. Ritual can be as contemporary as a marathon and as meaningful as creating a special design for our loved one’s headstone. Ritual only loses its value when it becomes disconnected from the love we feel for the person who died.
Thanatologists – those who study death and dying – note that the rituals surrounding death serve a variety of important functions. One function of ritual is to provide a behavioral expression of something that cannot be adequately expressed in other ways. Alan Wolfelt says, “When words are inadequate, have a ritual.” Indeed, words are wholly inadequate when it comes to articulating the significance of our loss but meaningful acts may serve as additional expressions of our feelings.
Beth is a quilter. Following the death of her husband, she has begun creating a memory quilt. She plans to hang it over the bed they shared for 36 years. Selecting which items of her husband’s clothing will go into the quilt, designing a pattern that is meaningful, even making a special place in her home where she can work on the quilt, are all part of Beth’s quilting ritual.
As Beth says: “I’ve cried countless tears as I’ve worked on it but each stitch literally represents the love I have for Bob. I am creating this for me and my family but I feel like I’m doing it for him and with him too. I feel closer to Bob when I quilt and it’s the last thing I can do for him.”
Familiar rituals, such birthdays and graduation ceremonies, offer opportunities for marking our loved one’s passage from physical presence to memory.
For Marci and her family, Christmas brings a new ritual honoring the life of her oldest son, Sean, who was killed in a motorcycle accident. “The kids and I just went through the motions that first Christmas after Sean was killed, but agreed when the next one approached that we would have to do something to include him. My younger son came up with the idea of a special Christmas tree for Sean and now it’s something we look forward to. We have a three-foot tree and we decorate it with things that were his and things that remind us of him. We eat gummy bears while we decorate it since that was Sean’s favorite candy. Of course, we laugh and cry doing it, but it’s like Sean is still a part of our family and part of our holidays. I knew we were doing the right thing when Brooke, my daughter, had a friend over and she took her friend to the tree and said, ‘This is my brother, and this is the bow tie he wore to his senior prom.’ Now her friend knows about Sean and we don’t have to pretend that he never lived.”
A third role ritual plays is connecting us to the larger community at a time when the support of others may be comforting. After Kyle was killed in Iraq, his parents, Kyle, Sr. and Bev, thought often of how much Kyle loved hiking and camping while growing up, having learned about the outdoors from his father and grandfather. From those memories, the idea of a special outdoor event designed to give other children an experience that Kyle loved so much was born. Some 200 children participated the first year and dozens of Kyle’s friends were on hand to help with the festivities. “Seeing Kyle’s friends meant so much to us,” recalls Bev. “Knowing that they remember and miss Kyle helps us cope with our own loss.”
Another role of ritual is simply to mark something as being out of the ordinary; to give something special meaning. Acknowledging an anniversary is this type of ritual. For Sumer, it’s simply taking a day of vacation on April 2, the anniversary of the day her mother was murdered, and doing something special in her memory.
“I’ve never been one for public rituals, but I have her pictures all over my apartment and I enjoy wearing her jewelry. When my brother and I were growing up, my mom would really sacrifice to get us something that we wanted; she loved buying things for us. So I do that for one of my cousins who lives in another country. His dad, my mom’s brother, is disabled and can’t work and I know if my mom were alive, she would be buying things for him like she did for my brother and me. My cousin says he’s the only kid in school wearing clothes from America! I know my mom would love that.”
Even neurobiologists are discovering scientific evidence of the value of ritual. It appears as though some ritual actually provides a point of “unity” between our brain’s left and right hemispheres – an intersection at which logic (left brain) and the ability to self-soothe (right brain) come together.
But for Lois, the mechanics of ritual aren’t as important as the feelings they generate. “I just know that when I go to church and light a candle in honor of my dad, I feel at peace. I can watch the flickering candles and think about what a wonderful father he was and I know that I can keep on living because he still lives inside of me.”
Tell us about your rituals.Tags: grief, hope, Multiple Deaths, signs and connections