Rituals: Our Response and Recovery Team in the Aftermath of Death
They provide a roadmap through the labyrinth patterns of grief
“I feel extra lost right now and don’t know what I am supposed to be doing?”
“I ache for them."
How do I get out of the blackness and push through?”
These are some of the resounding comments I have heard from my fellow grievers.
In loss, your daily routines, and the predictable flows of your life lay waste like a landscape after an earthquake.
When the world feels out of control and you are wracked with a profound sense of helplessness, powerlessness, and existential disorientation, rituals can act as your personal response and recovery team and deliver the vital support you need.
Harvard researchers Norton and Gino found that personal rituals help people overcome grief. They counteract the turbulence and chaos that follows loss by offering you a roadmap with clear instructions on how to get from point A to B.
After spending hundreds of hours deep diving into rituals in my personal life, African heritage, and scientific research, the irrefutable finding is that rituals introduce a level of resilience in people who perform them which is absent from people who don’t.
Rituals helped me navigate the countless painful moments that crowded my day-to-day life in those first months and years after the death of my mother and here is how they can also be your rescue and relief team.
What is a Ritual
Before, we get into how rituals support you, first what exactly is a ritual?
Most people are confused with outdated definitions of ritual which point to dark pagan practices and cults or to routines or habits which are repetitive of compulsive-like drinking a cup of coffee every morning.
Rituals are an intrinsic part of life across cultures. For example, in the American culture different rite of passage rituals are integrated into life like high school prom, college graduations, bachelorette parties, and wedding ceremonies.
Rituals include actions done with intention and attention to symbolize something more than the actual activity and connect you to the transpersonal – something beyond your individual life and self.
Key Ingredients of Ritual
In my African culture, rituals are always aimed at producing healing and integration, and an activity is elevated to a ritual when it incoporates the different pieces below.
"The focus here is not on ritual itself, but on opening up something in hearts and spirits that has been locked away so long that individuals can barely remember the source." - Malidoma Patrice Somé
- Presence: Performing a ritual requires your attention and awareness backing your intent. We need to be purposeful and conscious of the actions we are taking.
- Connection: Rituals include connection to and support from the invisible world or transpersonal realms. This becomes a larger holding space to bring about healing and integration as we realize we are not alone in our pain.
- Spontaneity: This is the unplanned piece of ritual which is missing from most Western rituals. This part speaks of the presence and influence of something beyond our ordinary lives which comes in to offer support and we can not know before how the support will happen.
- Symbolism: The power in a ritual lies in the symbolism – take for example a memorial - a group of people gathered to talk about someone’s life or honor someone might be no big deal in and of itself, but it takes on a special meaning when performed at a memorial service, symbolizing an important transition to death.
- Utility: A ritual doesn’t have to be rational or make sense. If it calms you down and brings about a sense of empowerment and peace – that is all what matters, not how it looks.
How rituals can support your grieving journey
In my journey through grief, I realized that rituals could support you at the macro and the micro level.
"Ritual is called for because our soul communicates things to us that the body translates as need, or want, or absence. So we enter into ritual in order to respond to the call of the soul." - Malidoma Patrice Somé
Rituals to support your day-to-day life (Micro)
At the micro-level for example, rituals can offer you a practical roadmap with step-by-step instructions on how to cope with grief reactions on a moment to moment basis.
Stabilization rituals like grounding rituals can provide you with emergency shelter when you have a panic attack in the middle of a grocery store or morning rituals that can help you navigate those mornings and days where you wake up in terror realizing that your loved one is really gone.
Restoration rituals, like self-soothing rituals, can deliver the much-needed relief supplies to nourish and nurture you when you are ambushed by uncontrollable tears or a wave of excruciation sorrow
Rituals to support your journey through grief (Macro)
At the macro level, rituals can take you from the dark side of grief to the light side of grief by providing you a roadmap through the multiple spirals of grief you will experience and help you start rebuilding and reconstructing your life.
Here are the 5 ways in which rituals can offer this support.
1. Structure through a roadmap
Rituals offer you step-by-step instructions and roadmaps that provide a sense of control and structure to your life when it feels chaotic.
For example, a grieving ritual like the crying sessions I performed every day for about 3 months in the beginning, provided me with a roadmap and structure to navigate explosive emotions like rage, guilt, regret, and self-blame.
My crying rituals provided me with instructions on how to get from a place of uncontrollable tears and heartbreak to a place of serenity and calm in 90 minutes or less. It did this by having a clear beginning, middle, and end with minute details on how to process the tears, how to turn the volume down if the pitch of pain reached a crescendo, and how to turn off “grief” so to speak, when I was overwhelmed.
In the grand scheme of my journey, a combination of different rituals offered me a roadmap from the dark side of grief to the light side of grief no one talks about.
2. Safety through containment
“It provides the safe space to fall to descend into the depths of both the known and unknown layers of sorrow. It helps you to surrender completely to the requirements of grief. Nothing is held back. When there is no container, we recycle our grief and pull it back into our bodies unreleased.” – Francis Weller
You might be afraid of facing the pain of grief because the pits of despair and anguish feel bottomless, and the darkness like a void threatens to swallow you whole.
To be able to survive the savage and explosive moods of grief, you need to create a bottom for your grief. According to Weller, we need a container that can catch the weight of all the painful and traumatic memories that abound.
Grieving rituals or grounding rituals for example provide such containment.
Rituals provide boundaries to pain that seems endless; think of a ritual as the fence around a raging bucking bull which keeps it contained or the banks of a river that prevent the water from flowing in every direction.
Rituals offer you a potent holding space so that you feel safe enough to descend to the depths of the unknown layers of your sorrow.
It does this by calling forth a mysterious presence that does the work that cannot be done alone.
In ritual space, the sacred becomes the larger holding space or container to support us in the heavy work of grief.
For example, we can think of this “mysterious presence” as your inner intelligence that cushions the immediate impact of death by wrapping you in a soft blanket of numbness until you have the inner resources to face the pain in the future.
3. Release through symbolic expression
"And to have finally dealt with suffering, you have to consume it into yourself. Which means you have to –with eyes open–be able to keep your heart open in hell. And what it involves is bearing the unbearable. And in a way, who you think you are can’t do it. Who you really are can do it. So that who you think you are dies in the process."— Ram Dass
When you are reeling with loss, rituals can offer you a release through the metaphoric process.
I was finally able to confront the repressed rage I felt towards God and life itself at the death of my mother in a ritual space which gave me the courage and a sense of safety to empty this rage into a poem I wrote called When God was a Dictator.
Without the safety of ritual space, I would have never written those 'blasphemous' words or contain the energy which felt like a pressure cooker about to explode. The act of writing the poem helped me contain the chaos, dull the wild saber edges of grief and shape it into something in the world : something outside of me.
Grief immersion rituals like the “grief dances” I did are like conducting a search and rescue mission of repressed traumatic memories, emotions like guilt and shame where you give them an audience in conscious awareness.
A space to express their heavy stories, mature, integrate and release what no longer needs to be held.
This is only possible because the ritual space supplies you with a pod of safety and courage by allowing you to approach these wild and primal energies indirectly using metaphor and symbolism like poetry, dance, and music.
4. Support through connection
"Through ritual we can enter a state of timelessness, which is sometimes called an altered state of consciousness. In this state, we can go beyond the parameters that describe our perception of reality” - Renee Becker
Connection to the personal unconscious
The transformative power of ritual first and foremost comes because of the altered state.
The thing is that in grief, we are already in an altered state except it is one of complete and utter chaos and madness, our rational minds relegated to the back seat, while our instinctive primal reptilian brain (amygdala) grabs the stirring wheel.
The act of performing a ritual allows us to connect with our unconscious and being to speak its language. This is the same language of dreams and rituals act as a proxy so that we can begin the process of integration.
Connection to the collective unconscious
When we perform rituals, in addition to accessing our personal unconscious with all the repressed and suppressed aspects of our lives, we also have the possibility of summoning the support of what Jung called the collective unconscious.
For example, in the space created by a mourning ritual, rather than feeling the loneliness and coldness of grief, we move past the threshold of our personal grief and connect to the collective grief of all our human ancestors before us who have also experienced the death of a loved one.
When we enter deep, we cross the boundaries of the personal conscious and enter a collective space where we can sit and eat with our human ancestors across all cultures who have walked this path before us. We cry tears they have cried before and allow them to tell us their stories and summon strength from the experiences they had when they lived through this phase.
Here we pass through our roots into our ancestral heritage and enter the collective unconscious. In this collective pool, like salt diluted in a lake instead of a glass of water, our pain begins to feel less personal, swallowed in the impersonal universality of the experience of death.
A sense of belonging blossoms, united with all those who had experienced the horror that is inherent in life.
Connection with your loved one who is dead
According, to my African culture, the dead are not dead. They have just transitioned out of their physical form and continue their lives in different realms of existence.
Through my personal experience and those of many others before me, I have found this to be true. I created what I call dream visitation rituals that helped me reconnect with my mother through dream visits and continue our relationship.
Through rituals, there is the possibility of evolving your relationship with your loved one through vivid dreams in which you get to feel the warmth of their hug again or interact with them similar to how you did when they were alive.
Connection to the transcendent (the sacred)
"Rituals make us transparent to the transcendent." – Joseph Campbell
In the past, rituals have been associated with dark pagan practices or accepted religious rituals like a Sunday church service, or a funeral with clear predictable content and outcomes.
Rituals don’t have to invoke a God from any one religion like Christianity, Buddhism, or Hinduism for example, but they provide a space for healing and integration by calling forth the support of something that is greater than us.
This could be an archetype from psychology like Jung’s anima/animus or The Self or myth like Persephone. It could be ancestors or invisible forces of the natural realm as is done in my heritage.
It could even be the intelligence in the human body that orchestrates the process of growing a baby in the womb from an embryo or protects you from the first blow of grief by injecting you with a dose of anesthesia by way of numbness to buy you time to gather resources for the arduous journey ahead.
In performing rituals, we come to realize that we do not walk the labrynth paths of grief alone. There is support for us from our personal unconscious, community, the collective unconscious, and the sacred.
5. Purpose through meaning-making
When you are in those early parts of grief when the pain feels like an open gaping wound, no one wants to hear platitudes like “it is God’s plan” or “it gets better over time” or any other number of things people say to imply that there can be some sort of meaning or purpose to a death that seems senseless and imbued with injustice.
What rituals can offer during this tumultuous period, is pockets of time in which you feel as though life is not so meaningless.
Cooking and eating food that you have no desire to do, which during normal circumstances can be considered a mundane activity is elevated to honoring your loved one’s memory in a mourning ritual. With intention and awareness, it becomes a medium to connect with your loved one at the same time nourishing your body.
Going to bed might take on new meaning for you.
Instead of viewing it as a time when the grief comes in heavy in the silence, a nighttime ritual can elevate it to a time where you prepare to reconnect and visit with your loved one in a visitation dream.
Over time, you discover that the effects of grieving rituals are cumulative. In my case, they did not only help me to survive the present moment but also helped me begin the process of reconstructing a new identity and harvesting meaning from the different contours and layers of my grief.
Over the last 4 years, by consciously attending to grief through rituals, I have crafted a new identity as a poet, a renewed sense of purpose as a grief advocate and guide dedicated to empowering my fellow grievers with the tools necessary to navigate the treacherous landscapes of grief and continue their relationship with their loved ones through dream reunions and visits.
Response and recovery team
No matter the shape a ritual takes or the story it tells, it provides you with structure, safety, releases purpose, and support.
It helps you make sense of the world, in a time when the world is dangerously tilting.
Rituals came to my rescue in a time of great need: they were my response and recovery team and offered the vital support I needed to start the process of rebuilding my life.
It is my hope that can offer the same lifeboat for you in your time of need.