Why do we need rituals in our grief journey? 

When a crisis hits and life seems out of control, rituals can help bring back a sense of order. Death is one of the most daunting crises in our lives and people throughout history have attempted to bring a sense of order back to their lives when they have experienced death. In fact, researchers believe some of the most ancient artifacts found had to do with death-related rituals! Every society since has used rituals in their death system. Over the past several years I have witnessed more people avoiding such rituals; yet it is important to know that rituals can be beneficial to both individuals and communities.


There is no “one size fits all” way to honor life and death through rituals. Not all rituals are effective or meaningful for all people. What is meaningful to one culture may not make any sense to another. Some may find comfort in a formal religious funeral whereas others find peace through sharing memories at a celebration of life. Still others find much more comfort and meaning in a small intimate ritual such as lighting a candle. What is important is that there be opportunities for various rituals to reach the most people in their grief to allow them to effectively mourn.


Here are a few suggestions:

  • Death notice. At the very least, we should offer a death notice (name, location, date of birth and date of death) to the community around us. Letting others, both near and far, know that a person has died allows them to begin their own grief journey. It also saves the family from what can be difficult and awkward interactions later. 
  • Obituary. Many folks shy away from obituaries due to the expense. Yet, an obituary certainly does not have to be long or follow any particular format. Get creative. Make it brief and poignant. Write your own obituary so it can be as personal as you would like it to be! Keep in mind as well that many funeral homes offer free obituaries on their websites for those they serve.
  • Community gatherings. Whether it be a wake, funeral, celebration of life, memorial service, or some other gathering like a barbecue in the backyard, these opportunities offer support to many members of a community. It is a time to come together to share in both the pain and the healing. Sharing stories or listening to the stories of others can also allow us to get to know the deceased in new and interesting ways. It is true that grief is personal and unique to everyone. It is also true that grief is social; that is, there is a collective loss and grief of communities, of nations, and of the world. This is why communal rituals and gatherings are so important. There is an energy, and a healing, that takes place when we come together as friends, as family, as community. This social aspect of grief is denied when we do not offer such opportunities. 
  • Individual or intimate gatherings and rituals. The most healing rituals are those we create or help create. The daughter who bakes her mother’s holiday cookies each year. The family who holds a fish fry each year in memory of their loved one. The husband who takes a dozen roses to his wife’s grave on their anniversary. Each of these honors both the loved one who died and the grief of the bereaved.


What do we do when our loved one tells us they do not want any type of service? It is crucial for each of us to understand that these rituals are held for those who are grieving. Certainly, we need to honor and respect the person who has died, but it is equally important to honor those who are living. Talk to your friends and family about these things before a crisis hits. Funeral directors, funeral celebrants, or churches can be helpful resources for planning options for individuals, families, and communities. 


Lisa Joy White, MA, CT is the bereavement & education coordinator for Pine Tree Hospice.

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