Move from the turbulent waves of grief to still and gentle waters
According to my African heritage, we believe that the natural world around us is made up of invisible forces that when invoked in the proper way, bring about much-needed healing.
Rituals are the “technology” that we use to connect and tap into these healing sources of energy. As a child, growing up in my Cameroon, everyday life was steeped in ritual from the way you started the day to the way you honored and remembered the ancestors and the dead.
After 15 years in America, I had forgotten my heritage and so when my mother died, I was floundering in the dark. I felt completely helpless and lost not knowing how to navigate my life.
It was only after the dust had settled about a year later when I came back to the truth that I had forgotten: rituals can serve as the healing ground of grief by offering safe passage through.
The power of the rituals comes from the symbolism that is inherent in them and the invocation of the transcendent – something that is greater than yourself.
Rituals help you navigate difficult and painful transitions, especially death by creating a bridge between everyday life and the symbolic, the conscious and the unconscious.
The potency of the ritual space can contain all the fierce and unpredictable energy present in grief by providing you with a roadmap through the rockiest and swampiest areas of grief, and a medium to release the gunky heaviness.
In the last 4 years, I have designed and performed many rituals to support my grieving journey and, in this article, I outline the 7 steps I use to perform or enact a ritual.
Routines versus Rituals
The internet is crowded with articles on routines for productivity, for happiness and any other number of outcomes, but few people are aware of the power of performing rituals, especially to navigate death and loss.
A ritual is something different than a routine or a compulsive set of behaviors that you do every day like drinking coffee. What differentiates ritual is that it has clear boundaries from your ordinary life and has a clear starting and ending point.
There are many studies that show that ritual experiences create a symbolic reality that allows you to express the different faces of grief in a controlled and safe environment. They elevate simple everyday activities to ones full of meaning and purpose which is vital at a time when you feel like life is meaningless and you are just going through the motions.
7 Steps to performing your ritual when grieving
When I was grieving, mornings used to be extremely difficult. I would wake up in cold sweats from the nightmares I had about my mother’s death. For almost three months, every night, I would dream that she was alive, and her death had just been a dream, but then towards, the end she would die and I would have to bury her.
I got up every morning in excruciating pain, curled fetal position as the realization hit me that she was really dead. There was no mistake. To survive those mornings and days, I created a morning ritual to help me contain the unbearable pain.
These were the 7 steps I used to perform my morning ritual which you can replicate for any ritual you perform.
Step 1: Create your sacred space
One of the things that set a ritual apart from a routine is that it is separate from your ordinary life, and you can create this boundary by designating a particular space where you will perform your ritual.
I performed my morning ritual in my bedroom.
My bed to be precise.
I had created an altar for my mother on my nightstand which included a photograph of her, some candles, a gratitude box, a statue of Buddha and Mary as well as a black onyx crystal, and a rosary ring she always wore when she was alive.
You can create yours any way you like - just remember that although your sacred space can be a part of your bedroom or any special location in your house, make sure to create some sort of altar by adding symbolic objects such as statues, mementos, photographs, or candles.
Sometimes, it can be as simple as intending the space you are in to be a sacred space no matter where you are.
Step 2: Write or speak your ritual intention
Once you are ready to begin your ritual, speak your ritual intention out loud or write it down on a piece of paper that you can place on your altar or hold in your hand.
Setting an intention for the ritual empowers you to be a conscious co-creator of your life instead of being a victim of circumstances. It serves as a declaration of the type of lived experience you want to have.
The intention I used went something like the below.
Intention: Today, I intend to enter and rest in a healing cocoon of peace and love where I feel grounded, calm, safe, nurtured, and connected to my center.
Step 3: Invoke something greater than yourself
Rituals don’t have to be religious, but they still have to provide a space for restorative and healing experiences by invoking something greater than yourself.
It doesn't matter whether it is a Christian God or saint, a Hindu goddess, archetypes like Venus, the universe, the forces of nature, or simply the body intelligence that causes wounds to heal or creates a baby from an embryo.
In my rituals, I would open the space by calling forth my ancestors, the earth intelligence, creative intelligence, and any other benevolent forces which were willing to support my healing vision.
If you are not religious but resonate with Jungian psychology, for example, you can call forth transpersonal energies like the collective unconscious or the archetype of “the Self” which represents the unified consciousness and unconsciousness of an individual.
Even simpler, just light a candle and invoke the element of fire or set a bowl of water to invoke the element of water.
Step 4: Perform the ritual steps
In this step, perform your ritual flow. It is helpful to write it down in the beginning until it becomes second nature. The key here is to bring presence and awareness as you complete the different steps of your ritual.
Throughout my grieving journey, I also performed ten other types of rituals below based on where I was on my path, what I was experiencing and what I needed. You can also design any one of these rituals and incorporate them into your life.
1. Grounding rituals: Rituals for those crazy moments of overwhelm when I was ambushed by panic attacks or anxiety attacks.
2. Self-soothing rituals: Rituals to nourish me and replenish my depleted resources.
3. Self-care rituals: Maintenance rituals to nurture and help me thrive in my life and move towards integration.
4. Nighttime rituals for those nights when I could not fall asleep because of the heavy emotions and ruminating thoughts that had taken up residence in my body and mind.
5. Lifeline rituals to lift me out of the blackness of the void and offer me a beacon of hope to keep breathing.
6. Distraction rituals to distract and offer some respite when the pitch of pain reached a crescendo.
7. Grieving rituals to help me turn towards grief and sit with all the monstrous emotions and memories that awaited me in the shadows.
8. Mourning Rituals to help me reconnect with my mother and remember and honor her when I missed her like crazy.
9. Connection Rituals that helped me connect with people who understood what I was experiencing and could provide a shoulder to cry on.
10. Dream Reunion Rituals to reconnect with my mother through visitation dreams when I desperately needed to feel the warmness of her hug or get advice on some part of my life.
Step 5: Expression and release
Many times, by creating space to support yourself, you feel safe enough to release painful emotions or memories that have been ambushing you through nightmares, intrusive images, or panic attacks.
For example, some mornings, as I journaled my morning pages, I would find myself breaking down in tears as the words leeched the pain out of my system. Other days, self-hugging morphed into wild and animalistic movements as I screamed out my pain and torment.
This part of the ritual is the unplanned part because you never know beforehand how your grief will express or what will be released under the intercession of the transcendent forces that come in to offer support.
You might experience a wide spectrum of things from physical pain to deep relaxation, sorrow to intense ecstasy and bliss. What I have found out is that my experiences have covered the gamut from spontaneously writing poems, to howling, or even silence.
Trust your process.
Step 6: Close your ritual
Once, you feel complete in your expression and the energy has simmered and settled, close or end the ritual any way you please. It can be as simple as putting out a candle if you lighted one or thanking the forces that came to support you.
Just make sure to return your sacred space to normal if it is not a designated space.
Step 7: Reflect and root
The purpose of this step is to reflect on the experience and ground and integrate any insights you received during the ritual into your everyday life.
I typically only perform this step for rituals that contain intense emotions or responses like grounding rituals for anxiety or panic attacks or grieving rituals where I come face to face with pain through crying sessions or creating art.
You can reflect on these questions
- How did you feel before, during, and after the ritual?
- Write out three words that represent the experience e.g. blue, frightening, and round. It doesn't have to make sense.
- What moved you?
- What did you learn?
You can also integrate the ritual session by creating art to symbolically represent your insights and help you connect the dots to see how the messages that came up fit into the greater context of your life.
My morning ritual enactment
Here is an example of one of the morning rituals I performed to inspire hope and offer resilience for the day ahead.
Calm Waters Ritual
- Light the candle on my altar to open the space
- Read my intention out loud
- Invoke higher energies to support me in the ritual
- Press play on my 5-minute soothing playlist which includes mantras of love
- Bring my knees to my chest and hug myself as I listen to the mantras
- Do a 5-minute breathwork and grounding visualization meditation
- Brew a cup of peppermint tea and sip as I write my morning pages (3 pages)
- Close the ritual by offering gratitude to the invisible forces that came forth to support me and putting out the candle
Total Time: 20 - 30 minutes
A way through
We need rituals in times of deep uncertainty when we feel lost and helpless like in the aftermath of loss.
The process of transitioning from a world full of your persons’ love, affection, and care to one in which they no longer exist is a monumental task!
Rituals can act as your mentor to guide us through to the other side of grief, especially in the beginning when you are in a state of profound disorientation and existential untethering.
Performing rituals derived from my African traditions as well as personal rituals I designed, I was able to rewrite my life story and find the light side of grief through the structure, meaning, and interconnectedness they provided.
And you can too.