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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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Rituals of Grief





People walk around a center altar, then kneel in the darkness of a cathedral as a candle is processed in by a dancer to the middle where a circle of candles is lit. 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 that we had forgotten was there, something that quickens our pulse and draws us in.

We want to be embraced by mystery, not explain it away.

Ritual involves our senses. Movement, the sounds and rhythms of poetry, incense, bells, candles, music and the visuals of art help us move outside our conscious, surface mind, which perceives only part of reality, and guide us deeper into Presence, into the Unknown beyond knowing. Cultures and religions have created rituals over the centuries to open human awareness to the world around us.

In regards to death and grief, there are communal rituals like the storytelling and singing of an Irish wake, saying kaddish after worship in the Jewish faith, and the Lakota Sioux coming together for mourning and the dispersal of the dead person’s belongings.

There are personal rituals like lighting candles in the evening, setting up 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 maintain small shrines where they continue to communicate with their ancestors.

Ritual carries us over the canyons of disbelief, and maintains a bridge with those we love.

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, Elaine put mementos of their life together and items important to Vic. She put in coffee beans and chocolate, not that she thought he would 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 often goes there to be close to him, bringing, at different times, red crabapples, gladiolas, and candles, and moistening the rocks with her tears.

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

Imagine a weekly ritual of drinking tea with someone who is also grieving. They sip tea in silence and watch each other’s eyes. One shares an experience, a thought, or a feeling, and there is a period of quiet before the other one responds. They watch expressions change on the other’s face. They touch each other on the hand. When the tea is gone, they rise, hug each other, and depart until next week.

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


What do many of us do at the gravesite of someone we love? We pick up a stone and take it home to remind us of a sacred place.

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You can listen to Elaine’s wonderful talk at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PBzEwf1k59Y

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