I wonder what comes to your mind when I say the word, “rituals”? Do you think of dances around a fire, or choirs singing liturgy? Both are rituals–symbols that are performed to represent a belief. Both are meaningful to those participating.
I was first confronted with our lack of grief rituals in modern western culture when missionary friends of ours narrated the story of the funeral of a little girl from Madagascar. As friends of theirs, we prayed for healing for this little girl that did not come on earth, so I was invested in hearing her funeral story. The women of the village cloistered themselves in a small hut with the un-embalmed body in the blazing Madagascar heat. For 3 days (if I remember correctly) they wept and wailed. I honestly cannot remember what happened after that, because I was so caught up in the weeping and wailing, for how long they stayed with the body, and the smell that my friend confirmed was happening.
It struck me that our modern western culture does not have time for your grief. Sure we have funerals, and most employers have special time you can take off for bereavement, but our world barely stops. People would be calling the psychiatrist for you if you wept and wailed for 3 days straight! That kind of behavior is only allowed for the 2 hours allotted for the funeral, and even then–you better keep that weeping quiet.
What is a grief ritual?
As stated in the beginning, rituals are symbols that represent our beliefs. A grief ritual will symbolize and honor something about the person who has passed. It can be a reminder of their legacy or your special relationship. It will represent you beliefs about how they lived their life and what happens when people die.
I think part of why grief rituals have slowly diminished in western societies is indicative of how our beliefs, as a culture, have changed about what happens when people die. A growing belief is that this life is all there is, and when we die, we simply cease to exist. This belief leaves us with no hope for this life–knowing that only a few people every century will contribute much of anything that will live on beyond their death. In this system, death cannot be remembered without inviting the bleak feeling of futility.
Christians, however, can have hope in this life because of the belief in heaven. Those who, through faith, believe that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross can bring us back into a right relationship with God can have hope that our contributions to this life play a part in the bigger picture even if our name is not remembered. And we can have hope when our Christian brothers and sisters die that we will see them again–that relationship is not lost forever.
Why are grief rituals important?
Grief rituals are more than just coping mechanisms. They are markers of what is important. I’m in favor of calling funerals funerals and not celebration of life ceremonies. Yes, they should celebrate the person, but they should also honor and represent the grief and sadness of the people still living. A funeral marks these feelings.
Grief rituals are important because they remind us of our love for that person and allow us a way to recognize the loss and sadness we still feel.
So think about that person that won’t be sitting at the Thanksgiving table this year. What do you believe? Do you believe you miss them? Do you believe they are in heaven? Do you believe they would have liked the stuffing better dry than wet?
Take a minute and write out what you believe to be true about them and your relationship then and now?
Now, how can you represent those beliefs as rituals? It doesn’t have to be big, or showy. No one has to know, or everyone can know. The only rule is that the ritual has to be a positive thing for you. If you believe they would have gotten drunk watching football on Thanksgiving, maybe we figure out a way to honor how they were without the excessive drinking part.
Who are you missing this year, and how will you honor them and your grief?