Rituals for Grieving: Turning Pain into Power
Excerpted from Turning the Corner on Grief Street
by Terri Daniel, MA, CT
I have studied and practiced rituals for grieving from a variety of world spiritual traditions, so I have learned a lot about the healing power of ceremony. Most of us go through our lives more or less numb and basically asleep. Even when grief offers us an opening for awakening, we often don't recognize it or act on it because death and grief are such taboo topics in our society. The Native American family described in my book gave us a beautiful example of how to access wisdom and intimacy when facing the absolute certainty of death. They brought rituals for grieving and clear intention to the death of their family matriarch. And in my chaplaincy work I've seen this happen with spiritually-oriented people from all traditions, whether Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Pagan or anything else. Deathbed and funeral rituals helped them walk directly with the death rather than shrinking away from it. By contrast, I have also observed people with an "in-name-only" spirituality (or no spirituality at all), who have no symbolic implements to help them work with loss or trauma.
If I compare the two families described in Chapter Five in my book Turning the Corner on Grief Street, the Native Americans used their spirituality (sacred objects, chanting, drumming and prayers) and its cultural practices (crying and grieving openly and taking the body home for burial), as guideposts for walking through the experience of death and grief. The other family – the one with the angry son, no spiritual beliefs and no plans for any kind of memorial service − had none of these tools. Instead, they projected their pain and anger outward by suing the hospital.
HELP FOR CHILDREN WHO ARE GRIEVING
In the summers of 2007 and 2008 I volunteered at a bereavement camp for children who had lost a loved one. Many of the campers had experiences that were dreadful beyond imagining. One eight year-old told me about witnessing his mother's suicide by gunshot, and another boy, age 11, told me that after his father's murder, his mother, grandmother and other family members would not tell him what happened, only that his father had died. He eventually heard the details from the other kids at school, who had heard it from their parents. There were dozens of stories like this, and in most cases the children were not given adequate or accurate information about the deaths, nor did they receive grief counseling or any viable help for dealing with the experience. For almost all the children, the camp was the first opportunity they had to talk openly about the experience and to participate in rituals for grieving specifically designed to help facilitate the expression of their grief.
One such ritual involved helping the children make "memory boats" out of large pieces of bark decorated with moss, twigs, flowers, feathers and scraps of paper on which they could write messages to their departed loved ones. We then set the little boats adrift on the river as a visual expression of releasing and letting go. Another ritual was facilitated by a dance therapist who led the kids in a movement process that expressed characteristics of the departed parent. In this exercise, the children stood in a circle taking turns mimicking a physical movement that the parent commonly used, such as casting a fly fishing line, smoking a cigarette or mixing cake batter in a bowl. These were significant visual impressions the children remembered about their dead parents, and by bringing these memories to the surface and physically acting them out, the essence of the parent expressed itself through the body of the child.
MOURNING THE DEATH OF A CHILD
Creative rituals for grieving like these are designed to open the heart. They are a conduit to the divine and act as a path to healing. But they don't have to be limited to an organized grief group or structured spiritual practice. These rituals are performed at home quite easily, on your own or with the help of a friend. And they are not tied to any particular religion, culture or belief system. Their forms work, whether sacred or secular, formal or casual, reverent or light-hearted. They can be done just once, or every year on a milestone date, or whenever you feel the need to connect more deeply. They are a form of meditation, and unless you are following a specifically-prescribed religious ritual, there are really no rules.
For example, last month I helped a friend do a sacred ceremony for a house she's selling. Her young son died in that house after a long battle with cancer, and she had just moved to a new house. The old house was all cleaned up, vacant and ready to sell, but she struggled with letting go of the only home her son had ever known. So we did a "releasing ceremony" in the old house. We carried incense from room to room, summoning her son's spirit − along with all our guides, angels, teachers and loved ones in the higher realms − and asked them to help us clear the house of any negativity, fear and pain that remained there. It was very emotional as my friend led me from room to room, talking about her son's life and the memories held in this house. We both cried as we opened up to the pain of loss, but our tears mixed with laughter as we felt the energetic lifting of that pain. We soon realized that the energy we were working to release was not held inside the house… it was held inside the mother's heart.
The same mother had a very large collection of her young son's drawings (he was quite the little artist). When she moved to the new house, she had to choose which drawings to keep and which to let go of. But how do we let go of such precious items? We can give some of them away to special friends, but we can't just throw the remainder in the recycling bin, because they are sacred objects and should be treated as such. The answer is ritual. My friend decided to take herself to the coast for a retreat, and while there, burn the drawings in a ceremonial bonfire on the beach.
Rituals for grieving help us move from the attachments of the ego-body into a more spacious, soul-level awareness. They remind us that grieving doesn't have to be all misery, all the time. There are countless ways to lighten the burden for a few small moments here and there, and ritual is one of many tools we have at our disposal. With the regular use of ritual, those pain-free moments when we experience a glimpse of timelessness can become more frequent, until we can recognize and honor our pain when it calls for our attention, but then let it go when our full attention is not required.
by Terri Daniel
(Read more about working through grief with ritual HERE)