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grief support for me  

How to Go on Living When Someone you Love Dies.jpg

excerpted from: 

"How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies"

by permission of author, 

Therese A. Rando, Ph.D.

pages 262-265. Published by Bantom Books. Copyright 1988.

5 minute read

What a Personal Bereavement Ritual Can Do for You

A ritual is a specific behavior or activity that gives symbolic expression to certain feelings and thoughts. You may do it repeatedly or only once. Rituals can provide a structured way for you to recall your lost loved one and to make some statement about your feelings. Since they acknowledge the physical loss of your loved one while allowing memory to continue, they can serve to encourage your necessary formation of a new relationship with the deceased.

Rituals have many specific therapeutic properties that can help you in your grief:

The power of acting out. Acting out enables you to do something constructive to overcome the feelings of emptiness and powerlessness that may accompany your bereavement. It gives you a sense of control and provides a hear-and-now focus for your grief. Acting out cuts through intellectualization and other resistances to mourning to directly reach your emotions; the physical reality of ritual behavior touches upon your unconscious feelings far more effectively than any words can. In this way, rituals allow you to express and display your feelings without overly intellectualizing and distancing yourself from them.

The legitimization of emotional and physical expression. Rituals give you permission to outwardly express your feelings. They provide acceptable outlets for your feelings and give you symbols to focus upon.


During her psychotherapy session, Gina is given a rose on her wedding anniversary; her husband has been dead for three years. A candle is lit while she pores over wedding pictures and talks about their life together. She takes the candle home and will light it on special occasions when she wants to mark a special communication between her and her deceased husband.

The delimitation of grief. Grief can seem overwhelming when you experience it as a diffuse, global reaction. Ritual can channel your feelings into an activity having a distinct beginning and ending with a clear purpose. In this way it can make your feelings more manageable, especially during holidays and at other anniversary times.

The Morrison family plants a special tree in memory of their deceased toddler, Andrew, on his birthday. This provides them with an activity through which they can demonstrate their love for the child and illustrate to themselves and others that they have not forgotten him. Consequently, the Morrisons find it less painful and not a betrayal of Andrew if they do not feel constant pain throughout the anniversary date. They find it easier to give themselves permission to experience whatever joy is available to them on this day without as much guilt.

Michaela, a seventeen-year-old girl, was killed in an automobile accident. Her family was told they needed to commemorate her at Christmas, a day they were dreading. They decided to burn a candle throughout the holiday to symbolize that she was still an important part of their lives, although in a radically different fashion. At dinner her chair was occupied by a senior citizen who otherwise would not have had a holiday feast.

The opportunity to “hold on” to your deceased loved one without doing so inappropriately or interfering with your grief work. Participation in rituals gives you the chance to interact intensely with the memory of your deceased loved one for a limited period of time in a healthy fashion. Ritual legitimizes such emotional exchanges.

The provision of assistance in grieving and in confronting unresolved grief. Rituals allow you the opportunity to make a statement, consciously and unconsciously, implicitly and explicitly, that a loss has occurred. Through symbolic behaviors you can channel your feelings of grief or you can finish unfinished business. Participation in ritual behaviors can aid you in the necessary process of withdrawing your emotional attachment to your loved one.

Rita was accompanied by her therapist as she visited the grave of her daughter who died nineteen years ago. She laid a bouquet of flowers on the grave, spoke of what she had lost in the intervening years and about when she would be reunited with her child. She then divided the bouquet in half, taking one half home with her and leaving the remaining flowers on the grave. She had told herself symbolically that while she had lost the physical presence of her daughter forever, her relationship continued based on loving memory. She had been fearful that if she acknowledged the death and grieved her loss, she would lose her daughter permanently. However, the ritual enabled her to acknowledge the death, grieve her loss, and still keep her daughter’s memory.

The learning gained through doing and experiencing. Participation in rituals “teaches” you that your deceased loved one is gone. It provides the experience necessary to recognize and confirm your loss, and helps you to make adjustments to the environment in which your loved one is missing.

The provision of structure for ambivalent or poorly defined emotions and thoughts. Rituals can give you a focus that is especially helpful in managing the confusing disorganization and loss of control commonly experienced in grief. They reduce the stress of grief and transition by prescribing specific actions to help you get through the social and emotional chaos. They provide both the conditions and the structure you need in order to feel grounded and safe while experiencing the intense reactions of grief.

The provision of experiences that allow the participation of friends and family. Collective rituals promote the social interaction that is necessary both for your own successful grief resolution and for your ultimate reintegration back into your social group. A religious service – for instance, a mass—would be an example of this.

The structuring of celebrations of anniversaries and holidays. Participating in ritual activities commemorating a special date provides an unusually effective way of tapping into or confronting your anniversary reactions, which you may not always easily recognize or accept.

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