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3 Healing Grief Rituals
By Emily R Long

Rituals can be extremely healing during the grief process. My definition of a ritual is basically a symbolic action by an individual or groups of individuals to honor or pay respect to someone or something. Rituals can be a great way of acknowledging and honoring a change or transformation in one's life. In terms of grief, the most commonly thought of ritual is a funeral or memorial service. Funerals and memorials services are great and can be very beneficial in helping us along on our journey through grief. However, the rituals that I am sharing below are more personal, creative rituals that people have come up with to help them heal their grief. These rituals can be used for situations of grief other than the death of a loved one.

Here are a few of the rituals my clients have shared with me...

1. Letters

Writing a letter is a common ritual I hear about and it is one that I have done myself.

Letter writing is a great way to say all those things we didn't get a chance or simply didn't say to someone - whether it's someone who has died, someone who has moved away, an ex-partner, or even to ourselves at another time in our lives. It can be a way to complete unfinished business.

Some people share their letters with others, some write it and then throw it away, and others create another ritual and bury it or burn it. It's a very personal process and it's important to do what feels right and true for you.

2. Bury the Past

A few years ago, I met an amazing woman who was overcoming an addition to benzodiazepines. She was completing her treatment when she shared a ritual that she'd performed. She told me that she'd kept a bottle of pills in her home throughout her treatment for two reasons - one, to prove to herself she could be around it and not use and two, so that if she felt she couldn't handle it she would have them there to take. She said that she had decided that she didn't need that safety net anymore and she no longer wanted to be that person who needed pills or to prove her worth to herself. So, she had taken that last bottle of pills and gone for a hike in the mountains. After a while she stopped in a random place a little ways off the hiking trail, dug a hole, and buried her last hold on her old addicted life and said a little prayer of good-bye. She told me that as she turned away and walked back down the mountain, she felt as if she'd left the grief and pain of her old self on the mountain.

Other people I've talked to have done similar rituals but instead of burying whatever object they felt was tied to their pain - they burned it (safely!), gave it away to charity, smashed it, threw it out, etc.

3. Creating a Grief Space

Grief can be overwhelming and chaotic. Unfortunately, we often cannot just stop all the activities of our lives (such as work, school, family responsibilities, paying the bills, feeding the dog) while we process our grief.

One ritual that can be helpful is to create a grief space and spend a set amount of time in that space each day during which we allow ourselves to let go of all the other activities in our lives and simply grieve. One teen I worked with would go down to a river by his home after school, settle himself down among the trees out of view of anyone who might walk by, and let himself cry for 20 minutes or so. For those 20 minutes he stopped holding back his pain and stopped thinking about school and his family and all the other stuff in his life so that he could completely and totally grieve for that space of time. He told me it helped him function for all the things he had to do, "it's like a pressure valve - those 20 minutes keep me sane."

The amount of time and the specific space will vary from person to person - and this doesn't mean that you won't grieve as you continue doing all the other activities of your daily life. This ritual simply ensures that you give yourself permission to process your grief wholly and completely without getting as overwhelmed.

There are dozens, hundreds of other rituals that can help heal grief. What rituals have you created to help you?

Emily Long is the President and Founder of International Association of Grief Support Providers (currently in start-up). She is a National Certified Counselor and earned her master's degree in Community Agency Counseling from East Tennessee State University. Emily has worked with diverse populations in standard and alternative mental health settings that include inpatient hospitals and outpatient clinics, crisis intervention, in the schools, and on a therapeutic ropes course doing individual, couple, family, and group therapy. She has worked with children, adolescents and adults.


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