After You’ve Experienced A Serious Loss – Using Rituals in Your Grief Journey
It had been six months since Jenny broke up with her partner after a tumultuous five-year relationship. She knew, without question, that it had been the right decision.
They had mutually decided to break up and go their separate ways. Still, even though time had passed, her world refused to right itself to her new reality. She found herself continuously reminded of the relationship – by songs on the radio or places they had shared in the city. In moments of sadness, her mind conjured images of what their life together might have been. She desperately wanted to move on but found herself stuck, unable to mark her transition forward or gather the support she needed to confront the future she had lost.
When you experience a serious loss – like a significant breakup, loss of a loved one, a home, a job, an ability or even a sense of purpose – you may find yourself mired in your own grief, unable to make peace with the past or look forward to a promising future. But many have found that participating in rituals can be a valuable tool as you move forward and work through your grief.
We’re all familiar with grief rituals after a loved one dies – funerals, life memorials and burials, along with religious traditions, such as sitting shiva following a death of a loved one. These rituals have significant value and weight in a community, but the benefits of ritual don’t stop in the days or weeks following a loss. In the case of Jenny, rituals can also be useful in grief that does not involve death or sudden, permanent loss.
What is a grief ritual?
A ritual is “a symbolic activity that is performed before, during, or after a meaningful event in order to achieve some desired outcome,” according to Harvard researchers Michael Norton and Francesca Gino.
Those experiencing grief might interpret that in different ways. For instance, one person might erect an altar in their home to honor a lost loved one, while another removes all photographs and mementos as an act of letting go. There is no singular correct approach when it comes to grieving. However, when it comes to performing grief rituals, the most helpful rituals share three key traits:
- They are actively performed and recognized as a ritual, as opposed to simply thinking about a ritual or the loss itself.
- They follow a certain time-limited protocol or structure, to allow yourself to safely access overwhelming emotions in a controlled way.
- They need to be sacred, in that the ritual is different from the things that you would say or do in your everyday life.
Beyond this, a ritual should be uniquely designed to fit your specific needs. It can be created alone or in partnership with your therapist. It can be performed by yourself or in community with friends and loved ones. What is most important is that the ritual be meaningful and helpful to you.
How a grief ritual works (and What Success Looks Like)
Many common rituals invoke a sense of spirituality, but the ritual you create does not have to. Research has shown that individual grief rituals can work even when a person does not inherently believe in their power or purpose. The simple act of performing a ritual has a variety of psychological benefits that can help modify how you respond to the world around you.
- Rituals can help you regain a sense of control and stability, which is associated with increased levels of well-being, physical health and coping ability.
- Rituals can also be used to create a safe space where you can experience and process the more painful emotions related to your loss.
- In its purest form, the act of ritual can validate the relationship or the legacy of the loss and help you to support a healthy, continued connection to it (if you’d like to maintain that connection).
- If you do not wish to or are unable to maintain that connection, a ritual can be the transition point of your experience, promoting reconciliation or helping you grow into a new social role or sense of self.
Three types of grief rituals
can help you connect with positive emotions associated with what has been lost and can be used to “thank” or validate a relationship or legacy.
Letting go rituals
can help you process and release negative emotions or help facilitate a symbolic reconciliation.
Rituals of self-transformation
can help you evaluate your current situation and take steps toward your future. Here are a few suggestions for rituals that can be performed for some of the more common experiences of loss. This is in no way an exhaustive list – sometimes the most impactful rituals are those you create yourself.
Death of a Loved One
- Visit gravesites or burial grounds at regular intervals to remember the deceased and honor their life.
- Continue tasks, chores or traditions that were important to the deceased as a way to build their legacy.
Letting Go Rituals
- Journaling or writing about painful emotions, and then choosing a symbolic way of releasing those emotions, such as burning the pages or releasing them over a body of water.
- Choosing symbols to look for that remind us of the loved one (red birds, butterflies, rainbows, etc.), noticing how they come and go in your daily life.
Rituals of Self-Transformation
- Journal or create art which represents the things you learned from your loved one and the way your relationship with them changed you. Ask yourself, how will I carry these lessons forward?
- Meditate and complete a value card sort to identify what is most important to you moving forward. Identify actions to move you closer to these values and take steps toward accomplishing these actions.
Post-Breakup or Loss of Significant Relationships
- Connect with other friends or loved ones with the purpose of discussing or processing the relationship as a way of validating its importance and the gravity of its loss. For instance, have loving friends over to your house to talk and spend time together.
- Return to spaces significant to the relationship on the anniversary of the breakup – acknowledge the positive memories and feelings these places evoke while working to create new ones.
Letting Go Rituals
- Write letters to the person you have lost with all the painful emotions and words you’ve left unsaid. Instead of sending the letter, release those emotions by destroying it in a way which feels meaningful to you.
- Collect and ceremonially dispose of or give away physical items or reminders of the relationship.
Rituals of Self-Transformation
- Spend a day updating your space for your future. This could mean deep cleaning your home, rearranging the furniture, or lighting candles and hanging art that bring you joy. Altering your environment to fit your new reality can be an act of care and hope.
Loss of Place/Home
- Take photographs of your home over your last several weeks – take pictures at different times a day, with different light, with different people occupying the space. Consider creating a photo album or framing key shots to remind you of the feelings that space brought you.
- Leave something of yourself in your home – plant a tree or write your name in a hidden spot (underneath a windowsill, on a door jam, etc.).
- Have a “house-cooling” party – invite family and friends over to say their last goodbyes to your home.
Letting Go Rituals
- Write a letter to the next occupants, telling you what the home has meant to you and what you wish for them.
- If your memories of the home/place you’ve lost have not been positive, it may be helpful to create a ritual around your departure. As you exit the home the final time, imagine that the closed door seals those memories in the past, where they can no longer harm you.
Rituals of Self-Transformation
- Spend some time meditating on what “home” means or has meant to you. Journal or create a piece of art that embodies this feeling and keep it with you as you move on.
Before you start
Make sure you are prepared and supported before starting the process of designing and implementing a ritual. Grief therapists report that if you try to implement a ritual without adequate preparation, it may cause some feelings to regress. Consider working with a therapist to design your ritual and allow yourself a space to process the painful emotions that may come up. Ultimately, your grief journey is as unique as you are, and you are the expert on what will be the most helpful to you. Rituals are simply another valuable tool to help you move forward and make peace with loss.
The information in this article was informed by the personal experience of the author and the following studies.
Doka, K. “Therapeutic Ritual.” Techniques of Grief Therapy: Assessment and Intervention (Series in Death, Dying, and Bereavement), edited by Robert Neimeyer, 1st ed., Routledge, 2015, pp. 341–43.
Norton, Michael I., and Francesca Gino. “Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, vol. 143, no. 1, 2014, pp. 266–72. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.1037/a0031772.
Romanoff, Bronna D. “Rituals and the Grieving Process.” Death Studies, vol. 22, no. 8, 1998, pp. 697–711. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.1080/074811898201227.
Sas, Corina, and Alina Coman. “Designing Personal Grief Rituals: An Analysis of Symbolic Objects and Actions.” Death Studies, vol. 40, no. 9, 2016, pp. 558–69. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.1080/07481187.2016.1188868.
Wojtkowiak, Joanna, et al. “Ritual in Therapy for Prolonged Grief: A Scoping Review of Ritual Elements in Evidence-Informed Grief Interventions.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, vol. 11, 2021. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.623835.
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