Ritual gives words to the unspeakable and forms to the formless. It brings the non-physical into physical form so we can see it, touch it, feel it, and process it. –Terri Daniel
In our exploration of grief, we have looked at the impact of grief on us as individuals and as communities when loss happens. While there are many types of loss, we have focused in our last two columns on the loss of a person. This is the most common loss we talk about within society, and we often do not see other types of loss with the same level of priority. The reality is that loss of all kinds can tap into our mental and emotional responses, regardless of whether it is loss of a person or not. Grief, as an emotional response, can come up whenever we are adjusting to a new version of reality that has shifted what is included in our lives.
We see grief pop up when people make all kinds of transitions. Changes in relationship status, jobs, homes, financial resources, property, health, or even communities can trigger the same feelings of grief, and often do. A shift in one’s life can bring about many different responses, including depression, sadness, anxiety, or isolation.
While there are many different approaches to tackling the feelings that come up during any life transition, approaching that transition from a place of grieving is altogether different. The rituals that we employ to support our process of adjustment could be a way to empower and manifest healthy outcomes. The things that trigger grief regarding physical death could be the exact same things that trigger it when other types of loss occur. While there are a myriad of different characteristics that contribute to the overall experience of grief, some common threads include the loss of control and the absence of something we are not ready to be without. The concept of control often leads to a need for safety, predictability and management of fear in one’s life. Acceptance becomes a vital part of the healing process, and one that is developed during the latter stages of grief.What is the difference when dealing with grief regarding events other than the physical loss of a person’s life? There is no one answer to this, and it is often individualized to one’s experience, context, level of attachment and associated impact of what has been lost. About 11 years ago, during the closing of the department I had worked in for seven years, I felt such intense grief at losing that job that I grieved over it for several years. The grief was long-lasting, just as the memories and experience of my time there helped to shape who I was as a professional and individual.
It wasn’t until I did a small ritualistic ceremony with a co-worker that my energy started to shift regarding my loss at work. The power of ritual has its place in many different aspects of the process of healing, and for me it was a catalyst to change.
A recent study has attempted to link the direct correlations between the use of ritual to support with the management of many different expressions of grief. In the Psychology Today article Can Rituals Help Us Deal with Grief?, psychologist Romeo Vitelli explores the impact of ritual on people’s ability to process grief. “Rituals can also help people come to terms with grief following the loss of a relationship, a job, or even an important competition,” he writes. “A new research article published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General examined the powerful effect that grieving rituals can play in helping people cope with the often chaotic impact of loss.” He goes on to say: “Though rituals can be highly formal, such as the kind of rituals seen in many religions, they can also be informally created by people needing to find a way to come to terms with grief. Since people who have suffered some kind of loss often feel as if their lives are out of control, using rituals can help restore that feeling of control and, in turn, make it easier for them to cope with grief. While rituals can vary widely, the underlying principle of restoring a sense of control is usually the same.”
When we think of utilizing ritual, especially as Pagans, what comes to mind is often an idea of something elaborate. While this is an option, just like any religious ritual is always an option, these rituals don’t have to be complicated. The research article cited above found that many of the rituals people identified as useful were not religious, per se. This opens up the way that we engage the physical, mental, and emotional impact of ritual when looking at the loss of control that is a huge part of the experience of grief.
In continuing to explore this vast topic, it was important for me to look at the connection between rituals for the physical loss of loved ones and for other types of losses. While there is a lot of advice out there for what to do regarding the loss of a job, monetary items, or even one’s health, there are not as many examples of specific rituals around the grief aspect; this was evident in the limited amount of recorded Pagan and mundane rituals.
Studies show that about five percent of people performing rituals for grief are utilizing religious rituals, and ten percent are doing rituals in public. This is an interesting tidbit on the way that ritual can be used in the macro and micro levels by various communities to address healing and emotional pain.
As a mental health professional, author, and board member for the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation, Deborah Grassman is experienced in the understanding of grief, loss, and death. She has worked for many of her professional years with veterans, assisting with the many losses and phases of grief that they experience as a result of their service. Her work with grief and loss acknowledges the impact of ritual on the process of loss, including the grief that comes from big life changes. She writes about turning to ritual as a means to help a nursing staff adjust to a major change in their practice:
I have used rituals professionally when difficult transitions were needed. When our oncology unit developed the hospice program, we didn’t anticipate the strife and division it would cause the staff. Creation of new programs with different patients upset the usual pattern of care. Tension and arguments ensued as staff coped with the change. Staff were reluctant to let go of their identity as oncology nurses and expand into the identity of oncology and hospice nurses. The new identity was necessary for the unit to function successfully.
I designed a therapeutic ritual to promote the inward changes needed to incorporate the larger identity that was needed. During the separation stage of the ritual, each staff member recalled a cherished memory, said good-bye to “the good old days,” and acknowledged the difficulty and pain of doing so. Each proclaimed a desire to grow into a new identity that included hospice nursing. Each brought spiritual readings and songs that reflected letting go and saying good-bye. During the transition stage, the anxiety of journeying into unfamiliar territory was acknowledged. Songs and readings that reflected a willingness to stay open to the uncertainty were articulated as well as a willingness to suffer required changes. Each person acknowledged the difficulty of changing and identified something they needed to do to make the transition into hospice nursing. A circle was formed with each person lighting a candle, saying, “A heart that is willing to suffer is a light to the world.” The integration stage included receiving a small footprints pin with the words, “Know that your journey is sacred and that your footprints are holy.” Songs that appealed to the hope of living from our larger selves were sung; a final blessing dispensed.
In looking at a different perspective on the impact of ritual for grieving, I found the work of Terri Daniel. Rev. Terri Daniel, MA, CT, is a “death awareness educator, interfaith minister, clinical chaplain and author of three books on death and the afterlife”. She is known for offering spiritual and metaphysical perspective on the life, death cycles and perspective. She had this to say about rituals and grief:
Rituals for grieving help us move from the attachments of the ego-body into a more spacious, soul-level awareness. They remind us that grieving doesn’t have to be all misery, all the time. There are countless ways to lighten the burden for a few small moments here and there, and ritual is one of many tools we have at our disposal. With the regular use of ritual, those pain-free moments when we experience a glimpse of timelessness can become more frequent, until we can recognize and honor our pain when it calls for our attention, but then let it go when our full attention is not required.
I reached out to several Pagans and Polytheists to ask about their own experiences with using rituals to deal with the many losses in life. I wanted to ask specifically about those losses that were not related to a loved one and more related to the mundane functions of life.
l have done labyrinth rituals to deal with the grief from my divorce. Both times I walked the spiral of our time together, once by the sea in Crete, and again near Lake Merritt in Oakland. I wept tears of both joy and pain and in the center sang this song to Ariadne that I learned in the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete with Carol Christ, arranged by Anne and Claire Mortifee of Canada: “We go down, as she goes down, we follow her underground. Hail Ariadne, who dies and is reborn, as deep calls to deep.” And asked for her thread that would lead me through this labyrinth of emotion and pain to a bright new now. -Heaven Walker
Grieving is qualitatively different when the loss is something rather than someone. Even when that loss is incredibly disruptive, or impactful – like losing a job – the ritual healing I need in that case is usually about restoring hope. Sometimes these rituals look similar; listing accomplishments or lessons learned can feel a lot like reviewing fond memories of a loved one. But where the ritual actions impact me is different. I’m not looking for comfort for my heart, but for a renewal of self-esteem. I’m not simply putting one foot in front of the other to keep moving, I’m reaching for a better situation than the one I’ve lost. I use ritual and magic to help set the stage for that better situation to come to light. –Lisa Spiral
There have been a lot of times when things felt awful, and I didn’t think I could muster up the gumption to get in to ritual space and every time I managed to push through and just… do it – I’ve been so grateful for it. Taking those moments to breathe deeply, to intentionally touch the energy of the earth and draw it in and around you – it’s not that it makes everything better, because it doesn’t. What you have to deal with you still have to deal with – but for a moment, two, three breaths under the full moon in a star filled sky, it would feel a little less awful than it did. And when things are really bad, feeling a little less bad for even a moment can be a blessing. -Stephanie
I suppose maintaining my ancestor altar and setting aside time weekly to clean it and talk to them reminds me that all of this, jobs, relationships of all types, material items, is temporary and very small in the grand scheme of things. The fact that I, a descendant of slaves, am even alive at all is a testimony to the impermanence of all things, even hard times. -Flame Bridhesdottir
Akasha describes one of her rituals for healing from grief regarding the loss of a job:
In your sacred space (I don’t always cast circles), have ready a black candle and a red candle, two papers, and a pen. Ground and center, then light the black candle. As the candle is burning, write everything about the job you lost on the paper. I mean everything: all the good, all the bad. Write single words of emotions, write sentences of thought, write out paragraphs of stories of this place. Draw pictures or sigils. Get all your complex feelings of grief out on this paper. Use both sides if you wish. It can be messy, it can be neat. Let things flow. Then when you are done, read everything you wrote. Really reflect on the time in this place.
When you are ready, fold the paper and burn it in the flame on the black candle, releasing all these emotions and thoughts that have been swarming around your head since the job ended. Watch the tendrils of smoke take all the good, all the funny, and all of the negatives up and out and away from you. Feel the weight of grief ease up on you, even completely leave you.
Then light the white candle and take up the second piece of paper. For this one, write all the words, sentences, drawings you wish to manifest next in your career. Do try to keep this one positive. Reflect on the things that you enjoyed about this job. Was it co-workers? The nature of the work? The clients? Fill this paper with all the things you would like to manifest, both sides if you wish. I tend to keep this paper neater as I want to manifest things to enter my life in calm way, rather than super chaotic, but that’s just me.
When you are ready, again read this paper. Even read it out loud! Visualize these things coming to be true in your life. When you are ready, fold this paper and place it under the white candle. Continue to burn this candle until it is out. (I use taper candles, so it’s usually a few hours.) When the candle is spent, leave it on the altar until – well, until you feel inclined to remove it. For me, that was after I had been in my new job for a few months, but it’s up to the individual.
Finally, Llewelyn’s Spell a Day 2010 also describes a ritual for grief:
It is worthwhile to look at how our religious and spiritual activities intersect with our ability to cope and heal with life’s challenges. Within many sections of our Pagan community we talk about ritual or practice a lot, yet we might not always talk about the myriad of rituals that venture outside of those we do within our normal practices. How we bring in elements of ritual to manage life’s challenges can be creative, useful and effective.
None of us are exempt from sorrow and grief; and mourning takes its own time and its own path. For a spell to honor our sorrowful heart, gather a black candle and a silver candle, special items to commemorate who or what you are grieving, patchouli incense, a pen, fallen leaves (dry), and a fireproof bowl. At your altar, honor the directions and call in the guides and deities that sustain you. Light the black candle in honor of your grief and light the silver candle in honor of love and hope. Light the incense and let its grounding power envelop you. Write messages and blessings on the leaves in honor of your grief. Present the leaves to the directions and the deities and the lit candles; and then burn them one at a time. Watch the smoke waft upward as prayers for blessings and comfort.
The previously-mentioned Psychology Today article summarizes this well. “How important are rituals in dealing with grief, loss, and disappointment? The evidence to date suggests that using rituals, whether the formal rituals associated with many religions or the informal rituals we can create for ourselves, can help people regain some feeling of control in their lives as well as cope with loss. Considering the devastating impact that grief can have on physical and mental health, relying on rituals can play an important role in alleviating the deep grief of loss as well as the more mundane losses we all experience.”
It is an easy sell in the Pagan community to emphasize that ritual works. Maybe we can expand our capacity to utilize different types of simple and symbolic rituals to support the overwhelming and challenging experience of grief. Whether we are grieving the loss of a relationship, job, or another large life change, using simple ritualized processes can be the stepping stone to healing.
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