Therapeutic Grief Rituals


I have been promising to write this post for awhile now, but I really wanted to make sure to take the time to write it thoughtfully and with grace.  The subject of grief and loss is difficult for most people to think about, let alone discuss.  I recently experienced three losses back to back within a span of four days, creating a space in time where I finally felt the subject pressing on me enough, to finally speak to it.

Fist off, a grief ritual can be as simple or as elaborate as you choose to make it and the goal of the ritual is to assist with “healing and restoration or the establishment of balance and harmony in the lives of the grievers” Humphrey (2009, p. 91.)  There is no right or wrong way to go about it, but I wanted to provide you some information from the book Counseling Strategies for Loss and Grief by Keren M. Humphrey.

According to Humphrey (2009), grief rituals “underscore and facilitate the transitional and transformative processes of loss adaptation in the following ways:”

  • Provide a vehicle for meaning making
  • Validate losses and relationships
  • Clarify change
  • Encouraging the experience and expression of emotions within a safe environment
  • Direct grief into a concrete activity
  • Facilitate forgiveness of self and others
  • Providing space and time for remembrance

There are seven steps in the creation of a grief ritual according to Martin & Dakota (2000), Parker & Horton (1996,1997), Romanoff & Terenzio (1998) and Rando (1993) and they are as follows:

  1. Determine the goal or purpose of the grief ritual.
  2. Determine what themes, issues, and symbols should be included. (unfinished business, forgiveness, transition, reconciliation.)
  3. Determine which aspects of separation/disconnection/leave-taking and continuing bonds/continuity should be covered and how their integration will be addressed.
  4. Select the basic elements and structure. (symbols, symbolic acts, significant people to be included and sensation-evoking ingredients such as colors, music, etc.)
  5. Consider and plan for the emotional impact.
  6. Implement the ritual.
  7. Review and explore what took place.

The process of grieving is person specific and is often a journey that ends only when one is ready to allow it to conclude.  The journey cannot be rushed, cajoled, or pleaded with and it is a unique experience every time.  Each loss is experienced in its own way and within its own time frame by the griever.

The most common type of grief experience is the death of a loved one.  However, there are many other types of grief and loss that many of us do not know about.  Below is a list (not completely inclusive) of other losses that are usually not thought of as loss, but are often grieved:

  • Divorce/break-ups/separation
  • Abandonment
  • Acquiring a disability, function limitation or chronic illness
  • Addictions
  • Loss of capacity (infertility)
  • Natural or man-made disasters
  • Job loss/unemployment or career changes
  • Relocation/immigration
  • Individual and family developmental transitions
  • Violent loss (abuse, war, suicide, rape)
  • Status/role changes (social class change, parenting role, provider role)
  • Loss of assumptive world (meaning associated with faith, life direction/core beliefs)
  • Loss of “feeling safe”.

Loss can be sudden, expected or gradual and varies in intensity.  There are also primary and secondary losses to consider, as it is common for them to occur together.  An example of a primary loss would be the loss of a job; an example of a secondary loss would be the loss of the role of the main provider in the family.  Grief and loss often occur in the multiple and fluid contexts of personal, familial, social, cultural and historical influences, Humphrey (2009.)  It can be large scale or small; affecting only one person or affecting an entire community or society.

The subject of grief and loss is very complex.  It is a high-intensity, emotionally charged experience often glossed over in our society.  “We” as a society are expected to “just get over it,” and “move on,” as quickly as possible.  Those who are grieving are often pushed away by those who do not wish to deal with such a touchy, difficult and burdening subject, or because they do not know what to say or do.  Let’s face it, it is not the most joyous of topics, but I believe it is one of the most important conversations to have.  Grief and loss will touch everyone one of us, in some way, possibly multiple times throughout our lives and I feel it is important to know how you can help and what you should do for yourself or a loved one who is experiencing it.  A grief ritual is just one of the many ways to help yourself or someone else work through the grief and loss process.

Unhelpful things to say to a person who is grieving:

  • “Do not worry, you will find someone else eventually.”
  • “Let me know if you need anything or if there is anything at all I can do to help.” (Unless you truly mean it and you are willing to drop whatever you are doing in order to help the grieving person the moment they need it.)
  • “Time heals everything.”
  • “I know this is a tough time for you, but things will get better, just wait and see.”
  • “Focus on what you can change, not on what you can’t change.”

Ok…so here are a few examples from the book:

  • A sexual abuse survivor wrote letters to her abusers describing how she had overcome the damage they had done to her.  She shared the letters with a group of important friends as they sat in a “sacred circle.”  She then burned the letters and read some poetry about survival and her new identity as she left behind the victim and became a survivor.
  • A group of friends built a labyrinth path and then walked the path three times: first with a reflection on losses they had endured, second with a reflection on the nature of change and transition, and third with a reflection on gains they had made in adapting to their losses.
  • A man whose father died built a special box using his father’s tools and gave the box to his own son.
  • A returning war veteran participated in a Native American ceremony designed to restore balance to his life so that he could “walk in beauty.”

Here are three examples of rituals from me personally.  Two are grief and loss and one is not:

  • I needed to find a way to mark the end and beginning of my work week.  I needed to learn not to allow my work life to flow destructively into my personal life; as I work in a fairly toxic environment at the moment.  I created a daily ritual involving my parking tag and badge. Monday through Wednesday I pull my parking tag out as I am leaving my house every morning and hang it from my review mirror and I attach my badge to my outfit I am wearing for the day. Every evening I take the tag off my mirror and my badge off my outfit with one simple phrase “let it go.”  This ritual allows me to leave work where it belongs.  If I am going to talk about my work day with my husband on the way home, all conversation is to be completed when I pull into the driveway.  “Work talk” is not allowed inside my home.  I have no words to explain how helpful this has been.
  • I chose a glass bottle and five colors of sand to mark the events that had happened in my life from the time I was born, up until the time I lost my health and became a disabled veteran, and then into the present.  I poured the sand through a funnel into the glass bottle talking about what each color meant to me.  When I corked the bottle, it symbolized the space in time, in which my ritual was held.  I grieved the loss of my health and my youth as I knew it.  For me, it was a very powerful and moving meaning making ceremony.
    • White = was my life up until the time of my military accidents in survival school. (pure and innocent and full of life and light)
    • Black = the time of my accident and the ensuing health problems it created.
    • Blue = for the day I “flat-lined” in the VA emergency room.
    • Yellow = for when I began to slow down and adapt my life to the person I had become, instead of trying to force myself to continue to be someone I no longer was. This also marks the beginning of time when I finally chose to start taking care of myself.
    • Green = is for the hope for new life, the adventures that await me in the future and all of the positive experiences I have yet to have.  It also represents the personal self-care plan I have started putting into place that will assist me in living a longer, happier, healthier life.
    • There is a space at the top of the jar that is empty, and it is impossible to fill because I cannot foresee the future.  It is a promise of the future to myself.
  • Every year in May I plant flowers to remember my mother, who passed away in April 2008.  She absolutely loved flowers when she was alive but was too allergic to them to be able to enjoy them.  I plant them every year in remembrance of her.  I take the time to remember her life and the impact she had on me and others in the family, as I carefully plant each flower.  I specifically pick out annuals, so that I have to plant them every year in her honor.  I am by no means a gardener, but this ritual helps me hold a positive place in my heart for mom and it helps me to keep her memory alive.

There is so much more to discuss on this subject!  However, I want to keep this post focused on grief and loss rituals.

Have you ever created or participated in a grief and loss ritual?  If so, I would absolutely love it if you would share your story.  Are you thinking about creating one?  Share your ideas with us, you may inspire someone else.



About thoughtfulstroll

I am a veteran, a professional business woman and a counselor in training. Follow me on my journey to becoming a mental health professional.
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