Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Rituals of Grief

People circle around a center altar, then kneel in the darkness of a cathedral as a candle is processed in by a dancer to the middle and lights a circle of candles. A bell rings, and we open ourselves to the mystery of this moment, not knowing what we will discover tonight. A cello plays a meditative melody. A loaf of bread is broken and passed among the people. The bell rings again.

No words have been spoken, but the gathering is filled with symbols. It is ritual, and we feel something rise within us, something we had forgotten was there, something that quickens our pulse and draws us in.

The holidays are filled with rituals, some that are religious, and some that come from our society. Which ones affect you the most? Which ones are comforting? Which rituals disturb your focus on what you think is important? Which ones sharpen your resolve?

For this post I gathered two pages of background material on rituals, and I’m not going to use them because they have too many words. Too often we feel the need to explain our rituals in words, diluting the power of the symbols to speak in their unique way.

Ritual is what engages our whole being — body, mind, and spirit.

Ritual involves all of our senses. Movement, poetry, incense, bells, candles, music, and art help us move outside our conscious mind, which perceives only part of reality, and guide us into Presence, into the Unknown beyond our knowing.

Cultures have created rituals over the centuries that unite the human heart with the scared. In regards to death and grief, there are communal rituals like the Irish wake, saying kaddish after each worship service in the Jewish faith, and the Lakota Sioux coming together for mourning and dispersing the dead person’s belongings. There are personal rituals like lighting candles in the evening, a small remembrance altar at home with ashes and objects important to our loved ones, visiting the gravesite, and keeping an empty chair at the dinner table. The Japanese keep shrines in their homes where they continue to communicate with their ancestors.

In her TEDx talk, Elaine Mansfield, author of Leaning Into Love, says we turn to rituals to connect our lives to the sacred.

In her husband’s cremation box she put mementos of their life together and things important to Vic. She put in coffee beans and chocolate, not that she thought he would actually need them, but they were symbolic of what he enjoyed in life. She put in photographs of their life, flowers, and written prayers. Later she buried his ashes near their favorite tree and built a cairn of rocks from the stream over it. She goes there to be close to him, bringing, at different times, red crabapples, gladiolas, and candles, and moistening the rocks with her tears.

Ritual carries us over the chasm of disbelief, and maintains our connections with those we love.

Imagine a weekly ritual of drinking tea with someone who is also grieving. They drink tea in silence and watch each other’s eyes. Someone shares something, and there is a period of quiet before the other one responds. They watch expressions change on the other’s face. There are touches on the arm and hand. When the tea is gone, they rise, hug each other, smile, and depart until next week.

We are drawn to create rituals with our lives, to get lost in the language of our hearts like poets, be filled with the images and curiosity of artists, sing the tunes that rise within us, and dance like Zorba when our emotions can find no other way of expressing what is surging through our soul.

1 comment:

  1. I love the images you paint of ritual, Mark, just as I love the images you paint of nature. I'm savoring Mountains of Light. Thank you for making my work part of your post. This year, as for the last six years, I was grateful to have a Solstice Ritual with family. I wasn't home and this was a first. I missed walking in my big woods and visiting familiar trees and streams on Christmas Day.

    I love a silent ritual. I love the ritual of dance. In the first few years after Vic's death, my life was filled with rituals, dreams, grief, and no deadlines. It was a painful time, but also a sacred journey to the Underworld.

    Elaine Mansfield

    Thank you, Elaine, for your kind words. Your focus on rituals is encouraging me to do more in this realm. And your grief memoir inspires me.