The Rituals of Grief

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By UB therapist Michael Maloney, LCPC

I often see people come in processing their grief. I’ve witnessed how people process their loss of parents, friends, children, and pets. Some of the situations vary in how the person was lost: accident, cancer, old age, drug abuse, suicide, and so many other stories have been shared. Grief is a powerful emotion but one that we sometimes don’t know how to process. Many people talk about how much of our bandwidth or attention grief can take up. The one advice I tell them all is ‘Don’t go through this alone.’

Grief is the pain we feel when we lose an attachment. We can feel grief when we leave or job or city. We feel grief when we breakup with a romantic partner. We grieve when our friends move away or that favorite co-worker gets a new job. Grief is often about loss. Grief hurts because it was an attachment that mattered.

When people are in the throws of mourning the often get what I call a ‘suckerpunch’ feeling of grief. That is that feeling like you are going about your day and then something reminds you about the person. Then *WHAM* you are overcome with grief. This is normal for the grieving process. Those suckerpunch moments will slow down as time passes. But there are always holidays that remind us that the person is no longer with us to celebrate. This is why I ask people how do you want to welcome your loved ones into your grief?

I mean this in two ways. As I said earlier, many people need others to be around them as they grieve. But I also mean for people to welcome those who have passed into their lives. In Death we often focus on how the person died, but our attachments are to how the person lived. We typically have one story in how a person died, but we have multiple stories in how a person lived their life.

I’m always fascinated but other cultures in how rituals allowed families and communities to celebrate changes, hard work, and values. Rituals also help manage hard times and give a process to say good bye, but also how to welcome the person into our lives.

Take Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican Day of the Dead. The Pixar movie Coco celebrated the tradition of being with family to welcome the lost members of the family. This isn’t a day of grief. This is the day that they celebrate their family members and welcome them home. Rituals include putting pictures on the ofrenda (mantle or alter), cleaning the house to host the celebration, and cleaning and decorating gravesites. Food is shared in various forms, and songs are sung. This is often a larger community event and different areas celebrate it differently. But Dia de los Muertos is a day to celebrate the dead and bring the community together.

Some traditions are often about celebrating the dead as we say good bye. Some Irish customs have Merry Wakes, where ‘merrymaking,’ music, humorous stories, drinking, and laughing can occur. I had a family member who passed and, at his wake, was present with a Pabst in one hand and a flush of cards in the other. Some cultures might count this as disrespectful, but this was in his wishes. I also remember playing poker at my grandfather’s wake with my cousins. My grandfather had all taught us how to play. It allowed us to connect to eachother and share fond memories of playing a hand with him. These practices also reminds me of Jazz Funerals in New Orleans, where a brass band might play ‘When the Saints Come Marching In,’ during a march to the funeral home. The funerals are still sad but still full of life.

Keening, which has Irish and Scotic origins, is more of a practice than a celebration. It is vocally lamenting about a person’s loss. People are premitted to scream, cry, and give voice to their pain of losing their loved ones. Sometimes we need permission to be ok that we are not okay, and this practice welcomes it. Jewish culture also has timelines for people to mourn. I’ve seen people where they feel like they need to put on a mask to go back into society, but others just want to get validation just how hard grief can be. Tears and crying are helpful for others to see we are hurt and need attention. True we might feel overly vulnerable, but we need to welcome the people who we can be vulnerable with in our times of need.

The Jewish Shiva often has practices where the grieving family welcomes the community into their home. Food is brought by the community so the family are fed. Many cultures have traditions of sharing food and connecting with others. Welcoming people into our lives during grief can be hard. But grief is about loss of attachment; feeling disconnected from someone we love. We don’t feel our best, nor should we be at these times, but we often need connection during this time. When people go through grief they often feel like cutting away from society, but we often need to connect to our community.

But we need to make sure we acknowledge the ways we practice grief now. More and more people move away from family, and families can have multiple communities, in multiple locations. And our grief is not just for a short period time. Jewish grieving period is often a complicated math, but usually is over a month and can be for a full year. We need ways to grieve through out year after our loved ones pass. I’ve had people in my life have multiple services and/or memorials that allow family to not just have one day to grieve with community, but multiple.

Consider how you would want to welcome them back into your life like Dia de los Muertos. When might these be? When we lose a parent, the first Father’s Day or Mother’s Day can be very painful. How would you want to celebrate that parent? Important family holidays or birthdays might also be important. I knew a mother that every Christmas tells stories to her children of her parents that died when the kids were too young to remember them. She wants to keep the member alive for herself and her family. I know a family that keeps an empty chair at Thanksgiving for the lost brother. I talked to a waitress once who wore her father’s tie clip every day on her uniform to keep him close. I talked about a sucker-punch feeling of grief, but these people welcomed their grief. Grief hurts because it matters, and no one wants to forget.

Many people miss the opportunity to be cared by and to care for their loved ones. Many customs have rituals of taking care of grave sites. On Memorial Day many people remember lost ones in war and tend to their family member’s graves. Other cultures bring the favorite objects, food, and pictures of family members to the grave site. These are ways we connect with our loved ones and welcome them back in.

So think about how you want to grieve. What are traditions you want to start? What are ways you want to connect to your community? How do you give yourself permission to be okay that you are not okay? What are ways you want to welcome grief?

One of the most important things rituals like these offer people is something to do. We are powerless in being these people back from the dead physically. But having these rituals and building them allow us something to do with our hands to move forward with the grieving process. Grief needs time. There is no rushing it. There is no curing it. There is need to process our loss. Rituals give us the opportunity to process and connections to build strength during the time of grief. So give yourself the time and again, make sure you don’t go through this alone.