How Personal Rituals Can Help Alleviate Grief

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The car was washed once a week when he was alive. Now that he was gone, his wife continued the tradition, even though she didn’t drive the car herself. Another bereaved spouse whose wife had passed away years before remembered her by continuing to go to the hairdresser’s on the first Saturday of every month, just as they had done together throughout their marriage.

Private and Public Rituals

These private rituals were among several discussed in a study conducted by the Harvard Business School and covered in an article by The Atlantic which examined the effects of personal rituals on grief. The study found that personal rituals were an instrumental part of grief recovery.

Public rituals help mourners by gathering family and friends together to offer their comfort and support and to help them transition back into the social world. But private rituals, which the study found to be most helpful, do not help reconnect the bereaved with others in their social group. Instead, they are most often performed alone. For example, one daughter who lost her mother said that when she missed her mother, she listened to one of her mother’s favorite songs. The study discovered that those who performed personal rituals following a loss recovered much more quickly and reported feeling less despair and pain after the ritual.

Why? The researchers found that rituals helped people overcome grief by giving people a greater sense of control when they felt particularly powerless and out of control. When a loss occurs, there is nothing that the bereaved can do. They cannot bring their loved one back. Their world is plunged into chaos and disorder. Nothing is as it was. But a ritual is like a lifeline. The study found that after performing a ritual, mourners were much less likely to report feeling “helpless,” “powerless,” or “out of control.”

Rituals that Heal

The type of rituals performed by those who experienced a loss varied greatly. They could be a meaningful one-time event or a frequent weekly or daily observance. Below are some ideas for creating a personal ritual that heals:

  • Continue a tradition you had with your loved one, and take the time to reflect on what you loved most about the person
  • Take up a new hobby or pastime that you would have enjoyed doing with your loved one
  • Do something you had always talked about with your loved one, but never had the chance to do before
  • Volunteer or raise money for a nonprofit that helped your loved one or that he or she would have admired
  • Visit your loved one’s graveside or place of rest and talk about how you feel
  • Write a letter to your loved one
  • Listen to music he or she loved
  • Create a work of art in honor of the person who died

For anyone whose world has been turned upside down by grief, the value of a personal ritual lies in its ability to create a way to remember a lost loved one and gain a renewed sense of control and purpose in the midst of grief. Have you ever taken up a personal ritual to help you cope with grief? Please share and comment below!

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