Rituals Help Us Deal with Loss

RitualA number of years ago in the early morning I was walking on the beach and stopped to rest on a bench at the end of one of the short streets leading to the beach. As I sat there drinking in the fresh sea air, an older man arrived in a pickup. He got out, approached the bench and asked me if he could sit down. I welcomed him with a gesture.

After three or four minutes of sitting in silence he got up to leave with the words, “My wife died about a year ago and this was her favorite spot. So every morning about this time I come down to say good morning to her.” He climbed into his pickup and left.

I was impressed with the wisdom of this man…he had created a simple ritual to help him deal with a deep loss and had made it a daily practice.

I was reminded of this man and his ritual as the anniversary of my son Richard’s death approached and passed recently. Richard was my first biological son.

With 18 aunts and uncles and their spouses, and 51 first cousins, the inevitable losses have taught me a few things. I have come to learn that grieving rituals are not restricted to the time after the passing, but can be extremely healing even before the actual death, when we know it’s coming.

Richard had a fatal liver disease including cancer. We spent many hours of quality time together in the days before his passing. We openly discussed our lives, his impending death, meaning, legacy and his thoughts about life after he is gone. We discussed happy things and sad things. We were well past the denial phase, but the tone of our discussions was still hopeful. By the time of his passing, we both had a sense of peace.

More grieving and more rituals followed, but what we did before Richard died was a good part of the grief work.

At the time, I didn’t think of our discussions as a ritual, but then I recalled having had parallel discussions with other family members as they were dying. For me the intimate discussions about life and death have become an important ritual before an impending death.

If we live long enough, we all have to face loss. I’ve just described two very different rituals for dealing with loss, one following the loss and one preceding the actual death.

I invite you not only to take advantage of the standard rituals — the Memorial service, the burial, the wake, etc. — but also to develop rituals of your own. Just as the ritual of visiting his late wife’s favorite spot helped the man come to terms with her absence, your own rituals can help you through your losses.

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Dr. Neill Neill retired his psychology practice at the end of 2013. He maintains an active coaching practice via telephone or Skype with select clients dealing with alcoholic husbands or ex-husbands. Check out his book, Living with a Functioning Alcoholic: A Woman's Survival Guide. http://drneillneill.com

1 thought on “Rituals Help Us Deal with Loss

  1. Dear Dr Neill,

    Your article on rituals was comforting. This year has been an especially difficult one at times. I lost my Leigh (first daughter) about 1 1/2 years ago. She did so much with us at Christmas and was such a vital part of our celebrations.

    Even though the pain seems deeper at times, it is also short lived these days. The good memories and my own healing take over rather quickly and I gain control again. I love the idea of a ritual. I will be happy to give this some thought and practice it to not only help my own healing but to also remember an incredible human being.

    Thanks for all you do.


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