A Grief Experienced: 4 Therapeutic Rituals to Help You Process the Pain of Loss
Dr. Kevin Boll
She was thirty-one years old, had overcome drug addiction to crack cocaine, returned to God, gotten her life back together, married a good man, had an eight-year-old daughter that she adored, and a year before had overcome uterine cancer through radiation treatments and chemotherapy that had lasted a good eleven months. She was happy, free of cancer, forgiven, in love with her Lord, her husband, and life itself.Then the headaches started becoming worse and worse over a two-week period. They thought that it was a reaction to a change of pain medication (she had some scarring from the radiation treatment that caused her pain) but changing prescriptions didn’t work and the migraines sent her to the emergency room more than once.
Finally, the doctor ordered an MRI on Saturday, but no one read it. When she went back in again for a severe headache and vomiting on Sunday, they pulled it out and noticed that there was a golf ball sized tumor in her head. Immediately they scheduled her for surgery at 9:30am Monday.
That’s when I got the phone call from her husband, Alex, that my firstborn, my precious daughter, Angela, was in the hospital down in Portland and was scheduled for brain surgery the first thing Monday morning.
Dropping everything, I rushed down to Portland from my home in Puyallup, WA (about 150 miles away). When I visited Angela, she was coherent and free from pain because of the pain medication she was on. We talked about what was happening, how she was doing, about some family stuff, and chatted for almost two hours by ourselves.
I shared with her how much I loved her and how very important she was to me. It was getting late and she said I should probably go and get some sleep and she would see me in the morning before surgery. I am sure she saw the worry and concern on my face and said to me, “I’m okay, Dad. I’m not worried. Jesus is going to take care of me — no matter which way it goes.” Those were practically her last words to me. The next day she was pronounced brain dead, having never made it to surgery.
A Loss Almost Too Much to Bear
The suddenness of this tragedy and loss was almost too much to bear. After getting the news that she might be brain dead, I remember going into the bathroom at the hospital and literally falling on my knees and crying out to God that I didn’t think I could survive this great of a loss, that it was too much to bear, that it felt like all the light had been snuffed out of my life.
The darkness of pain, loss, and grief clouded my heart and soul. However, that was now a decade ago, and I have survived. Light has come back into my life and life has become not only bearable, but good again.
Maybe you have felt that way, too. Maybe you have experienced this type of life-changing loss. Your heart is broken, your life is reeling, and your mind is confused. You are trying to make sense of it all and are searching for answers to how you can survive such a devastating loss.
As a former USAF Chaplain, pastor, and Christian counselor, I may not be able to answer the “why” question, but I can give you some ways to deal with the “how” question—how to survive this loss, how to heal your broken heart and how to move on with life even when you don’t see the way. Let me share four rituals that can help ease the pain of your loss and help you process your grief.
Grieving Rituals Help Put Our Lives Back Together Again
Grieving rituals can be very therapeutic in helping us process and move on with our grief. We are mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical beings. Grief influences and affects all these areas of our lives. Rituals also tend to impact all these areas at the same time.
The word “ritual” has Indo-European roots and means to “fit together.” It is related to words like “order,” “weaving,” and “arithmetic.” All of these words involve fitting things together to create order. Rituals fit, or help put, things back together. When a loved one dies, it makes sense to turn to rituals to help us put our lives back together again.
Grief can be extremely chaotic and disorienting. It rips our world apart. In fact, the word “bereaved” comes from the root “reave,” which means to be robbed by force.
“Grieve” stems from the French root “grever,” meaning to burden, afflict, or oppress. We can use the elements of a healing therapeutic ritual to restore order to our lives after everything is torn apart by the chaos and pain created by the death of a loved one.
4 Therapeutic Rituals for Processing Loss
While funeral rituals have been around for millennia, Dr. Kenneth J. Doka enlarged on it and developed the concept of therapeutic ritual—describing four types of rituals that may be used with grieving individuals (The Use of Therapeutic Ritual, 2016). Let’s look at each one of them and how they can be used.
Rituals of continuity emphasize the continuing bond with the deceased. These can be quite simple. For example, a family might light a candle on the anniversary of the death or some other significant time to evoke the memory and continued bond with the deceased.
I know that each anniversary of Angela’s death and on her birthday, I would find myself getting depressed and irritable (especially if the date kind of ‘snuck up on me’). When I realized what was going on, I created a simple ritual: I would sit down with some pictures of her life (along with a box of tissues) and just cry and tell her how much I missed her and how much she means to me.
After about 30-45 minutes, I would tell myself that was enough for now, get up, put the pictures away, dry my eyes, and go on with the rest of my day. In this way I was able to reaffirm her importance to me, that she hadn’t been forgotten, and express my grief and thereby help get the emotions out of my system.
One family commemorated their son’s death by having a gathering of friends and family members on the anniversary of his death and releasing candle-driven sky lanterns over the ocean. Watching the release of all these lanterns into the sky at night was a powerful and healing symbol to family and friends and a dramatic expression of their love.
Simple rituals like this or visiting the gravesite of your loved one, laying some flowers, and expressing your love out loud can help release and process the pain of loss.
Rituals of transition mark some movement or change in the grieving process. Dr. Doka illustrates, “For example, before the father of one of my clients, Jason, essentially abandoned his family, Jason had made a plaque in his middle-school ceramics class that said, ‘Daddy’s Garage.’
The divorce of his parents and subsequent paternal disinterest troubled Jason deeply. After a few months, he took the plaque down from the garage wall and carefully pulverized it. He proudly announced to his mother that it was no longer “Daddy’s Garage” and took over the space himself.”
Rituals of transition mark times of change and help give us the ability to move on. In many ways they empower the individual with a before and after, so they can move on.
Rituals of reconciliation tend to finish business—that is, they allow the grieving individual to express or receive forgiveness, or to offer a last message or simple farewell.
Dr. Doka gives an example of this: “Joan, another client, lived much of her life struggling with her father’s alcoholism. When her father developed cancer, he became and remained sober for the two years until his death as he struggled with his illness.
In this period, she saw another side of her father. He was now an attentive and loving husband, father, and grandfather. When he died, Joan felt cheated. She experienced a loving father for only two years— had he been sober, she realized her life and her mother’s life would have been very different.
Eventually, she wrote her father a long letter conveying all her conflicted emotions, including her pride in his sobriety, her disappointment that he waited so long for recovery, and her regret over the past. She read, and subsequently burned, the letter at her father’s grave, witnessed by her own family, her siblings, and her mother. She was relieved that ‘she had said her piece.’”
These types of rituals can be very therapeutic as they allow the individual to express feelings that otherwise would be bottled up inside of them—either good or bad—with no opportunity for expression or resolution.
A son or daughter who didn’t make it to the bedside before the parent passes away can express their love and appreciation and say their last goodbye. An estranged son or daughter can make peace. A spouse can finally let go and forgive. All of these help the individual to process their grief and move on with their lives.
Rituals of affirmation allow the bereaved person to thank the lost person for his or her presence and legacies. Dr. Doka shares about Kieran, a ten-year-old, and his father who had often fished together— a sport they both loved.
For a long time after his father’s death, Kieran did not fish. When he decided to fish again, he reverently buried the first fish he caught near his father’s grave, thanking his dad for teaching him the sport and promising that whenever he fished, he would remember his father and the special moments they shared.
Guiding Principles for Creating Therapeutic Rituals
A few principles should guide the creation of these therapeutic rituals. First, they should not be imposed but rather developed from the bereaved individual’s own narrative of loss and grief. That narrative will suggest the appropriate kind of ritual and offer clues as to who should participate or witness it and what objects should be included.
What is good and effective for one person may not be for the other. For the ritual to be meaningful, it must come from them and their unique experience. Rituals can be private or witnessed by small or even large audiences—whatever feels appropriate to the individual.
The second principle is that rituals should include visual objects chosen for their symbolism. A necklace, their favorite cup, a picture or something from a place they loved, a ball or object from a sport that was a big part of their life—things that can be seen, touched, and felt help give the ritual more meaning.
Third, rituals should be fully planned and carefully processed so as to have the greatest impact possible. Finally, rituals are likely to be more powerful if they include primal elements—for example, fire, water, music or chimes as wind, and flowers as earth. Rituals, because they involve our minds, emotions, spirits and bodies, can harness healing power and help us process our grief.
Where Can I Get Help?
If you are experiencing grief and loss, you don’t have to go it alone. Seeing a professional Christian counselor can dramatically help ease the pain and guide you through the grieving process.
While grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss, the length of time and the intensity of the grief is related to the many conflicting emotions that are felt related to that loss. A counselor can help you work through those emotions and guide you through the process.
Just as the above rituals can help, so can talking to a Christian counselor. You don’t have to go it alone. I, or another counselor at Seattle Christian Counseling, can walk alongside you through this journey and transition in your life.
Take that first step and schedule a risk-free initial session with me or another counselor at Seattle Christian Counseling. You can make an appointment through our website or by calling the number at the top of this page.
“God’s Place”, Courtesy of Anthony Bevilacqua, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Prayer”, Courtesy of Ben White, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Lantern Ritual”, Courtesy of Ryan Franco, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sunshine Bath”, Courtesy of Zac Durant, Unsplash.com, CC0 License