Grief rituals: Attending to the incomplete
There is no shortage of articles out there singing the praises of building rituals into our everyday lives. Here's a good example of one of those articles. I wholeheartedly practice and recommend ritualising day-to-day, mundane events. Simply being truly present with a cup of tea, spending a few moments soaking up the gentle rays of the sun before launching into a busy morning, or mindfully washing off the day in the shower can nourish and centre us, and bring meaning to our existence.
However, in this post, the type of rituals I'm discussing are rare and sacred. They are rituals we use to attend to ourselves and our unresolved grief.
Grief is a universal response to loss, and every person experiences it in their own unique way. While the idea of grief is most commonly associated with death, it can arise in response to any kind of loss -- whether that loss is validated by others or not. It is a natural process. But for those of us who are grieving, the experience may feel anything other than normal. Grief has a profound affect on the body, mind and spirit. From a clinical perspective, physical pain, exhaustion, weeping, changes to sleep patterns, sadness, anger, disbelief, anxiety, numbing, crying out and searching, racing thoughts, confusion, visions and vivid dreams all fall within the realms of 'normal' grief in the days, weeks and months following a loss.
I recently reacquainted myself with the theories and practices of grief work. In his book Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy (which I have read so you don't have to, unless you want to) William Worden describes the work of grief as 'tasks of mourning': In general, these tasks are accepting the reality of the loss, processing the pain, adjusting to a world without who/what has been lost, and finding an enduring connection with who/what has been lost while embarking on a new life. They are not neat 'stages', and Worden acknowledges that grief never really ends -- it just becomes incorporated into our experience. However, Worden notes that if any of these tasks are left incomplete, our grief can become forever 'stuck'. Time, it seems, does not heal all wounds.
Worden explains that stuck (also known as 'complicated' or 'prolonged') grief occurs for reasons too numerous to list. Perhaps you had a difficult relationship with a person who died, or your loved one (human or animal) died a traumatic or violent death. Perhaps you were grappling with health issues or the end of a career, and the people around you told you to 'get over it and move on'. Perhaps you experienced a miscarriage, there were little ones at home who needed to be cared for and there was no time for you to stop. Perhaps there is shame, guilt, taboo, anger or blame (of self or others) around your loss.
Reading about grief (and a recent period of rest and reflection where I was less prone to being distracted) stirred something within me. I found my thoughts frequently turning to a loss I experienced more than a decade ago. I realised my grief process, previously stuck and frozen inside me, was starting to melt like ice in the sun. It made its presence felt in physical sensations, sudden and intense emotions, and memories and dreams. It was suggested to me that I had not processed my pain, and that perhaps a ritual would help me.
On the night of the new moon, I chose an outdoor location that felt safe and secluded, where I wouldn't be interrupted. Using music, a candle and a journal, I connected with the one I had lost and entered into a conversation with them. At first, it felt awkward and forced. But given enough time and space to unfold, my unfelt emotions were able to flow and I got to the core of my 'stuckness'.
This ritual was not a cure for my grief. The sadness and regret are still there. However, I now feel like that sadness and regret are part of me -- rather than being dismissed and neglected in a dark and lonely corner. I am healing, rather than curing, myself. Maybe I will decided to repeat this ritual in the future; maybe not. But right now, my grief feels more integrated into my experience. My perspective has expanded, and there is now more space for me to feel love, lightness and gratitude when I think about my loss. My ritual has facilitated a grieving process that, in the words of Rachael Naomi Remen, "...allows us to heal, to remember with love rather than pain. It is a sorting process. One by one you let go of things that are gone and you mourn for them. One by one you take hold of the things that have become a part of who you are and build again."
Perhaps this post has stirred something in you -- a loss that wants to be honoured. Perhaps now is the time to check in with that grief, or talk to someone about it. Maybe a ritual feels like the right way to go, or maybe it doesn't. Remember, everyone's process is different.
If you feel ready and decide to create a ritual for yourself, know that what you do doesn't matter. It just needs to be something that is helpful and meaningful to you. Give yourself more time than you think you will need. If it feels more safe and supportive to do so, ask a trusted friend or therapist to assist. Let go of all expectations about what is going to happen. All feelings are valid -- even those that surprise you or feel wrong. Your process may be explosive, or like a breeze on a lake. Surrender to the process. Be gentle with yourself and your heart as you lovingly complete your sacred tasks of mourning.