Why Rituals Are So Damn Powerful

How to become more emotionally resilient after a loss.

How is your heart these days?

As we navigate the darker months here in the Northern Hemisphere sometimes our hearts require a little more self-care. As nature retreats under a blanket of snow it’s the perfect time for reflection and going inward. Winter can sometimes stir up our grief because it forces us to slow down and get quiet. And in that quiet, we are often reminded of the deaths that have touched our hearts. One of the things that can bring us comfort – is rituals.

Humans have been curious about/ fascinated with death for thousands of years. The Smithsonian found evidence of death rituals that are 100,000 years old. And the Egyptian Book of the Dead is at least 3,300 years old. It’s filled with spells and instructions for the soul to help it navigate the afterlife. From this lineage, our modern death rituals have evolved. Some rituals are for the person who has died and some for those of us left behind.

So how do rituals help us cope with grief?

Now, I love when science and spirit collide. And one study found that people who performed rituals were more emotionally resilient after a loss. But it wasn’t the death ritual that we most often think of…

In fact, only 15% of people described rituals that had a social element (think funeral, wake, or celebration of life). And only 5% described religious rituals (which I found a little surprising). So what kind of rituals were the majority of emotionally resilient people doing?

Personal, private rituals had the most impact on emotional wellbeing.

Some continued rituals the deceased person enjoyed during life. Like the griever who decides to complete the New York Times crossword every Saturday just as her spouse had always done.

Others continued rituals their loved ones used to enjoy like hiking on Sunday afternoons or watching Jeopardy every night.

And some described a one-time ritual, like burning pictures after a break-up or a sunset hike to release and let go as the sun dips over the horizon.   

They were all highly personal and they all had meaning to the griever. And while we might think remembering our loved ones in this way would feel like constantly peeling off a scab and never letting it heal – the researchers found that personal, meaningful rituals diminished our feelings of powerlessness and helped us feel more in control of our lives.

This makes total sense if we remember back to the Cycle of Life – death (and loss) shocks us out of our familiar, comfortable world. We feel separated from life as we knew it. We descend into chaos. And in the period of rest and rebirth, we redefine the edges of who we are.

Rituals help us make sense of the chaos. And they become a bridge back to our expanded life and new normal. They allow us to keep moving forward while honouring and acknowledging all we’ve lost and the heartbreak we’ve been through.

Here’s an example from my own life…

I was in Australia when my dear friend Tracy died (back in Canada). She’d always had an intuition that she’d die in her car (because of her erratic driving). But what ultimately caused her death though was a driver in the opposite lane of traffic who had a heart attack, swerved into her lane, and hit her head-on. 

My Dad called to deliver the news and I was shocked. This was the first close friend of mine who died and I was staying in a shared hostel room with 5 other women. It felt like I had no place to grieve or cry so I threw myself into work.

Thankfully, at the time, I was working at the Australian Federation of AIDS Organizations as a temp Executive Assistant, and having dealt with heaps of death in that field, they were able to guide me through (including paying for my first foray ever into therapy, which helped immensely).

It was suggested to me that I perform my own rituals to honour her. So, I did. First, I wrote her a letter which a mutual friend then printed on beautiful paper and placed on her casket. 

Then, when the time of her funeral came, I cleared space in my calendar so I could head down to the waterfront near the Sydney Opera House and journal about our friendship, meditate, and cast my emotions out to the water to be absorbed by mother nature.
Connecting with nature in this way helped me a lot and allowed me the space and time I needed to grieve her. I felt a part of the funeral even though I was 15,555 km away (yes, I looked the distance up)

All that to say, rituals can be performed in a way that is meaningful to you. For me, meditation felt natural and comforting….to others it may be frustrating and uncomfortable. 

Give yourself the gift of ritual to be the container for these deep emotions. Like the river needs its banks to flow with purpose and direction – these rituals will support you.

Whether your loss is recent or happened years ago it’s never too late to create a meaningful ritual to help you grieve.
  • Cook their favourite meal or prepare a special meal in their honour and invite everyone to share their favourite story of your loved one 
  • Carry a remembrance item (my friend carries a grocery list her grandmother wrote in her wallet because it has her handwriting) 
  • Create art in the loved one’s memory
  • Give away belongings or personal items to friends and family
  • Burn sage or rosemary (for remembering and friendship)/ light a candle. Many cultures light candles for 3 – 7 days after someone has died (often with the idea of lighting their way to the afterlife)
  • Create an altar
  • Write a love letter to your loss(es )… optional – burn it afterward
  • Go to their favourite spot in nature
  • Create a scrapbook of memories
  • Donate to a charity they would love on their birthday
  • Hang their stocking at Christmas and have everyone write a note to put inside
  • Plant a tree or flowering bush
  • Buy an ornament for them each year
  • Create a memory quilt
  • Have their favourite shirt or sweater turned into a pillow
  • Attend events that remind you of them
  • Participate in a charity event
  • Visit their graveside and bring them up to date on what’s been happening in your life, or write them a letter if a visit isn’t possible
Emotions (like grief) are energy in motion and they need movement in order to move through you. You could add something physical to your ritual – walk in the Relay for Life, sign up for a dance class you know they would’ve enjoyed, sing at the top of your lungs or have a good cry. You can also find ways to express your emotions through journaling, art which could become part of your ritual. Or you could talk to someone who has earned the right to hear your story.

I hope these suggestions inspire you to work with your grief, to create a meaningful expression of your heartbreak and a safe space to express all the emotions that come with loss.

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