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Grief Rituals:

Turning Pain into Power

Excerpted from Turning the Corner on Grief Street
by Terri Daniel with Danny Mandell​

WHY RITUAL?

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. In the five years since I wrote about ritual in my last book, I have studied and practiced rituals from a variety of world spiritual traditions, and have learned a lot about the healing power of ceremony. The Native American family described in Chapter Five gave us a beautiful example of how to access wisdom and intimacy when facing the absolute certainty of death. They brought rituals 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.

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"The grief in the human heart needs to be attended to by rituals and practices that when practiced,
will lessen anger and allow creativity to flow anew."    Matthew Fox 

Rituals for Moving Through Grief 

Human beings have been creating rituals to mark their experiences, state their intentions and support their beliefs since the beginning of human history. Whether these rituals focus on offerings to the sun and the rain gods, prayers to Mary and Jesus or communion with the Great Spirit, they provide meaning and healing. And rituals to move through grief can be some of the most powerful and profound. Below you will find some beautiful examples.

The Family Quilt

Sarah's husband died from a heart attack at age 56. The pain of cleaning out his closet and getting rid of his clothes was too much to bear, until a friend suggested that she make a quilt from her husband's shirts. She hired a local quilter, and the result was a gorgeous quilt that she wrapped herself up in every night. Five years later Sarah married again, and the quilt was handed down to her daughter, who used it for her brand new baby. Life goes on and on, and the spirit of Sarah's husband was honored to welcome that beautiful little grandchild soul.

rituals to move through grief


Every Home Needs an Altar

People from a wide range of religious traditions create altars in their homes, whether they're dedicated to Mary and Jesus, Vishnu, the Great Spirit or departed loved ones and ancestors. An altar can be a small table in a corner of any room, and on it, you can place anything you like that connects you to Spirit or the essence of your loved ones on the Other Side. Photos of the person, some of their personal sacred objects, healing stones, flowers, hand-written messages… anything at all. Light candles on this altar whenever you feel moved to connect. It can be a yearly birthday or transition day, or every day, as you see fit.

 

rituals to move through grief

 

Home for the Holidays

Many grievers find birthdays, Thanksgiving and the winter holidays a time of great sadness because their loved ones aren't present in physical form. But instead of focusing on their absence, consider focusing on their presence by inviting them to the festivities. This is not such a bizarre idea. Consider that Christians use the symbolism of bread and wine to represent the flesh and blood of Jesus, and Jews set a place for the prophet Elijah at the Passover table each year. On birthdays, bake your loved one's favorite cake and gather friends for an "earth birthday" celebration (if your friends think you're crazy for doing this, it's time to find new friends). On Thanksgiving, light a candle for your loved one, and have everybody at the table share a special memory of him or her. On Christmas, decorate your tree with the special ornaments that were meaningful to that person. Don’t hide from those memories and feelings. They are more easily healed and balanced when we invite them in rather than shoo them away.

 

Ashes to Ashes

rituals to move through griefIf your loved one was cremated, instead of scattering the ashes all at one time in one place, consider scattering some of them and keeping the rest to use in future rituals, such as the person's death anniversary or birthday. Sprinkle the ashes in your garden or into a river every year on this milestone date, or use them to create art in some form. When I built my house in 2007, I put some of my son's ashes in each of the four corners of my property to create sacred space. You can do this every time you move to a new house, or every season when you plant a new garden. It's all about renewal. It is also possible to have the cremains used in blown glass art objects, and even in tattoos!

There are many imaginative and meaningful ways to use cremation ashes (also known as “cremains”) in ceremony, and the ceremonies do not have to be formal or somber. Because my son loved to travel, I divided some of his ashes into tiny, decorated bottles and gave one to each of our closest friends to carry with them on their vacations and business trips. His ashes have now been sprinkled in at least a dozen countries.

 

rituals to move through grief


Keep Your Loved One’s Name Alive

Four months after my son died I had my last name legally changed to his first name… Daniel. You may not want to go so far as to legally change your name, but you can find dozens of imaginative ways to keep your loved one’s name alive. Use her nickname as one of your computer passwords, or start a business, charitable group or website using a variation of it. Engrave his name on a paving stone for your memorial garden, or hire a graphic artist to design a logo or icon for the name.

 

 

 

Create a Journey Blanket

If you have a loved one who is dying, consider creating a memorial quilt or “journey blanket” for him or her. Eighteen months before my son died, I gathered a group of friends in my living room for a potluck dinner and a quilting bee. Each person brought a piece of fabric that had special meaning to them, and these -- along with pieces of fabric from Danny’s own life -- were cobbled into a beautiful patchwork quilt, filled with love, prayers and blessings. It was far from technically perfect, with sloppy stitching and uneven squares, but the energy it held was magical. The quilt was very warm and Danny slept with it for the next two winters. The following summer he died lying on top of that quilt, and now I sleep and meditate with it, and it has become my journey blanket also.


Get the kids and grandkids involved   

Teach them about the departed. They can write letters to grandpa, add objects to the altar or share their dreams and visions. Invite them to draw pictures or write stories about the loved one, or better yet, encourage them to talk about their views of death and other worlds. If they are really suffering, please, ask your local hospice for referrals to grief groups, camps and other resources for children. The worst thing you can do for grieving children is to isolate them from the process.


Get a Tattoo

Many of the firefighters who battled the blaze at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 felt unbearable grief and guilt about the partners who’d fought beside them and perished. Some of them processed and ritualized their grief by having images of their fallen friends tattooed on their backs. The firefighters said, “This way I will have my partner’s spirit with me every day of my life.”

Give the Riches Away

When you’re ready to start going through your departed loved one’s possessions, think of it as a sacred rite of passage. Invite friends to help, and light candles, say prayers, open a bottle of champagne and share memories, stories, laughter and tears as you look through the precious objects. Set aside selected items to give to friends as remembrance tokens, or make something wonderful and creative out of them. One of my friends made pillowcases from her mother’s antique tablecloths.


Hold Court

If the dying person is open to it and is physically able, she can choose which belongings she’d like to give to friends and family members. When my friend Betty was dying, she asked her sons to display her special possessions around the house. She was a collector of healing crystals, and the dining room table was covered with magnificent geodes, quartz obelisks, rare stones and other sacred objects. Her friends were invited to take whatever pieces called out to them, with Betty’s full participation and blessing. She even chose to have her memorial service while she was still alive. Friends gathered at her house to tell heartwarming stories about their experiences with Betty, light candles, sing songs and recite beautiful prayers and readings. Betty's bed was moved into the living room for the occasion, and she sat there regally, beaming with happiness.


Travel to Their Favorite Places

Was your departed beloved crazy about golf vacations in the Caribbean, dude ranches in Texas or art museums in Italy? If you have the resources to do so, follow his or her footsteps on your next vacation. You might be surprised at what you find there.


Plant a Tree or a Memorial Garden

I  know of a teenage boy whose high school allowed his friends and family to plant a tree in his honor on the school property, but if you can’t plant a tree or shrub in a public place in honor of your loved one, create a special corner of your yard as a memorial garden. Plant special trees and flowers there, and decorate the space with pictures, sacred objects, religious icons or anything that inspires you. If your loved one was cremated, this is an excellent place to sprinkle some of the ashes.


Excerpted from
Turning the Corner on Grief Street
By Terri Daniel with Danny Mandell
Copyright 2014

Watch experts discuss the importance of grief rituals
(from the 2021 Afterlife Conference)

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 specifically designed to help facilitate the expression of their grief.

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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. ​

"Ritual gives words to the unspeakable and form to the formless. It brings the non-physical into physical form
​so we can see it, touch it, feel it and process it.  Rituals create a bond between Heaven and Earth."     Terri Daniel 

HOW DO RITUALS HELP?

Rituals like these 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.

Counseling and grief support groups are useful for helping us to feel heard and connecting us to others who have experienced similar losses. Sharing stories and memories are important parts of the healing process, but they are not enough. In order to truly heal, we have to commit to doing deeper work, or we can become too focused on the external event (the death or loss) rather than the internal transformation that is necessary to become whole again.

 

Read this article by Dr. Terri Daniel on
The
Creative Personal Ritual as a Therapeutic Tool for Loss, Trauma and Transition
OMEGA JOURNAL OF DEATH AND DYING

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