What’s the benefit of a ritual? What’s the purpose of having a memorial service? A funeral? A celebration of life?
When we talk about ritual in reference to grief the answer is three-fold:
Rituals help restore feelings of control.
When we experience any kind of loss (a death, divorce, etc.) we become aware that the world (and life in general) is not as neat and orderly as we would like it to be. In fact, we discover a world of pain, suffering and chaos. Rituals (whether in the form of formal funeral services or scattering of ashes) allow us to acknowledge the chaos and to re-order our lives in activity. A ritual, in a sense, allows us to do something when there seems to be nothing left to do. It allows us to say something when there seems to be nothing left to say. It allows us to sing with there seems to be nothing left to sing about. It restores our sense of control and our understanding of our own agency in the chaos of life.
Rituals combat isolation.
A life loss can naturally leave us feeling completely alone in the world. This is especially true when we experience the death of a life partner. Feelings of isolation may surface as we watch everyone else continue about their daily activities as our world has come to a complete stop. Public rituals, with their focus on community, remind us that we are not alone on our grief journeys. Our sense of connection to those around us can do wonders for our mental and physical health. In addition, religious rituals may specifically help us to feel closer to the divine, and ultimately, less isolated.
Rituals are not bound to publicity.
The beauty about rituals is that they do not have to be public in order to carry meaning. In fact, the daily rituals we create to stay connected to our loved ones are just as important as the ones we perform collectively. In a recent study by psychologists Michael Norton and Francesca Gino, 76 university students were asked to write about a significant loss and how they coped with that loss. In addition, they were asked to describe the rituals they developed to help themselves cope. The researchers found that of all of the rituals described, only 10% were performed in public and only 5% were specifically religious. Answers ranged from: “I washed his car every week as he used to do,” to “I used to play the song by Natalie Cole ‘I miss you like crazy’ and cry every time I heard it and thought of my mom.” Though many of the rituals cited were private, participants also reported a strong sense of meaning associated with them. Rituals allow us, in essence, to reestablish a physical proximity to our loved ones that may have been lost, and in that proximity our relationships with our loved ones continue in new and different ways.
Hospice House & Support Care of Williamsburg affirms that ritual is a vital part of the grief process. With this acknowledgement, Hospice House & Support Care offers two annual memorial services, one in the fall and one in the spring. These services provide ways for family and friends of those who have died to remember their loved ones in a community of mourners.
On Thursday, April 28th, 2016, Hospice House & Support Care held its annual Celebration of Life service at Hospice House. At this service all those who passed away at Hospice House within the last year as well as those whose loved ones contributed memorial bricks to our patio were remembered.
As the chaplain of Hospice House & Support Care, I had the honor of providing the reflection for this year’s service. My goal for this reflection was to tap into this concept of ritual as a daily process that does not make us “crazy” but rather comforts us by continuing our relationships with our loved ones in new ways. I hope it will bring a new lens with which to view your own grieving process and that it may even inspire a bit of creativity as you identify what you need in order to cope with your grief.
You can read my reflection from the service below:
Message in a Bottle: Continuing Bonds
On December 6, 2012 Garrett Rivers, a FEMA disaster relief worker in the midst of clearing beach trash left by Hurricane Sandy, found a ginger ale bottle with a message inside.
Upon opening the bottle, Rivers read the note which was scrawled in a child’s handwriting.
“Be excellent to yourself, dude,” it read.
Next to the words was a phone number, and on the back of the note a simple salutation: “From Bill and Ted.”
Rivers, who loves a good story, used his co-worker’s cell phone to dial the number on the note.
What he learned in dialing it was that the number belonged to the midtown Manhattan apartment of Mimi Fery. Mimi Fery’s daughter, Sidonie Fery had penned the message when she was 10 years old during a beach visit to Long Island.
Then Rivers learned some very tragic news from Mimi. Sidonie had died in a fall in April 2010 at her boarding school in Switzerland. She was eighteen years old.
A few days after the phone call, Rivers and other relief workers met Mimi and her partner Kristaen van Gastel at the train station on Long Island. They gave Mimi the bottle with the message and took the time to show the couple where the bottle had been found on the beach.
In reflecting on the event, Kristaen said: “Sidonie was always telling me not to worry, that everything would be alright. Her message in a bottle reminds me of that every day.”
Mimi added: “It makes so much sense.”…“She was saying: ‘Mom I’m here.’”
Stories like these are very powerful. I think that they generate such awe, wonder and attention because they suggest that all things in this world – the tides, the ocean storms, the actions and reactions of human beings are intricately woven into this story that we call life and death.
And for people who have loved and lost – people like you and I – the need to feel connected to those who have gone before us is ever-present.
We need to speak of them. We need to talk to them. We need to hear from them.
And speaking of, talking to, and even hearing from our loved ones who have died does not make us crazy. It makes us human.
One of the things that my grandmother used to do on a regular basis was stretch out on the couch in her living room with her bare feet and red-painted toe nails pointing toward the ceiling. She would always in these moments have a book at her chest and the tabby cat that showed up at her door on her lap.
As a result, one of the rituals that I have created for myself to feel closer to her is to paint my toenails and then stretch out on my own couch with a book in hand. I sometimes invite the cat into my lap if he behaves. Often in these moments I find myself talking to my grandmother – telling her about what is happening in my life and even asking her for guidance.
And what I experience in this ritual is a simultaneous emptiness and fullness. I note a flicker of pain that my grandmother is not physically present to take on this posture, but I also find myself chuckling to myself as she would and I become keenly aware that a very unique and beautiful part of her continues to live on in me.
You see, just as our relationships with our loved ones evolved during their time among us, so too, our relationships with our loved ones evolve after their deaths. And part of this evolution is developing ways to stay connected to our loved ones even in their physical absence.
While not all of us have handwritten messages in bottles that wash ashore as ways of staying connected with our loved ones, we do have a beautiful creative capacity as human beings to generate every-day ways to stay connected with our loved ones and to listen for their voices.
I’ve met a variety of folks with different rituals to stay connected to their loved ones:
- Some people find it comforting to make daily and weekly visits to the grave. Others make visits to a favorite museum, to the site of a proposal, or to a former vacation spot.
- Some people eat their loved one’s favorite dish or dessert once a month. Others donate food in memory of their loved one.
- Some people put on their loved one’s favorite song and sing along. Others simply sit out on their back porch and have a running dialogue with their loved one.
There is no one-size-fits all when it comes to a ritual for continuing the bonds that we have with our loved ones. As each of us has loved differently, so too, each of us will find ways to stay connected differently. And while our need for these rituals may change over time as we change, we should always remember that initiating them is not a sign of insanity or weakness, but rather a sign of how much we have loved and our desire to continue to love even into death.
At the conclusion of our service today, we invite you to take with you a small gift from our Hospice House staff and volunteers. You will see as you enter in for our reception following the service, a table adjacent to our food tables covered with tiny clear glass bottles. In each bottle is a small sheet of paper. Pick up a bottle, take it home and put it somewhere in eyesight. Keep it to remind you that you can still speak of your loved one, that you can talk to your loved one, and that yes, you can even hear from your loved one.
If you want, take that tiny piece of paper out of the bottle and write down the message you are hearing from your loved one or the way in which you would like to stay connected. Or, if you wish, pass the bottle along to someone you know who may need a way to stay connected to their loved one. As American composer Irving Berlin once said: “The song is ended, but the melody lingers on.” Friends, our love for those who have gone before us is still very much alive, and it is to be honored every day in any way we choose.
Hospice House & Support Care of Williamsburg offers bereavement services to anyone in the community who has experienced a death loss. All services are free of charge. For bereavement support please contact 757-253-1220 or email firstname.lastname@example.org