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Grief Rituals

We are familiar with the public  grief rituals such as funerals, cremations or memorial services,  but smaller more personal grief rituals also have their important part to play in the healing process.

The tradtional Irish wake

The tradition of holding a wake is one of the most ancient of our death rituals, first being cited in the Homeric war poem The Iliad. In Ireland, the wake tradition is believed to be a mixture of Paganism and Christianity. Up until the 19th century, an Irish wake started with women washing the deceased, dressing them in their finest clothing, and placing the body on a large table in the main room of the house with candles placed around it. The body would be wrapped in a shroud, tied and decorated with ribbon or flowers. The wake would last a few days during which the body would never be left alone. Neighbours would visit the home of the deceased, welcomed by relatives, and expressed their sympathy by stating “I’m sorry for your trouble…”. Everyone was encouraged to touch the body, but it was not a solemn occasion.

Stories were shared, and food and drink were consumed liberally. Smaller rituals were carried out including all clocks stopped at the time of death. This marks the time out of respect, and also prevents bad luck. Similarly, all the mirrors in the house are covered so the spirit of the deceased is not trapped inside and all the windows in the house are opened so the spirit of the deceased can leave the home.

Why do we carry out rituals?

In general rituals are actions done in purposeful ways that symbolise something much more than the acts themselves. We may engage in ritual as we seek peace, clarity of mind, or to become more grounded. We all perform mini-rituals daily, such as a specific routine associated with preparing for bed each night, wearing a particular piece of jewellery or clothing for specific occasions, closing our texts or emails in a certain way or using certain emojis. Whether small or elaborate, the rituals we engage in tell stories about who we are, who we want to be, and what is important to us in our lives. Your own rituals may be derived from your family, culture, ethnicity, or a particular religious or spiritual tradition. But not necessarily – they can simply be something that feels right to an individual who is grieving, at this point in time.They don’t have to make sense to anyone else. No matter what stories they tell, rituals always provide structure, meaning, and connectedness.

Perhaps the most significant thing that rituals provide is a certain order to an existence that otherwise might be full of confusion and chaos. Human life is full of confusion and uncertainty and, undoubtedly, the most chaotic times in our lives are the times when we are grieving. Some people plan rituals in honour of a loved one’s birthday or an anniversary. Others choose to express their grief through small daily or weekly rituals. 

Some examples of small rituals

  • Lighting a candle at certain special times of the day or week or on an anniversary to remind you of your loved one 
  • Creating a memory scrapbook or memory box and filling it with photographs, letters, postcards, notes, or other significant memorabilia from your life together
  • Spending time listening to your loved one’s favourite music or creating a special mix of music that reminds you of that person
  • Planting a tree or flowers in your loved one’s memory
  • Visiting your loved one’s burial site, or where their ashes have been scattered
  • Carrying something special that reminds you of your loved one that you can take out and hold when you feel the need –  a special stone perhaps.
  • Creating a work of art in your loved one’s memory
  • Read or say aloud an inspirational verse, poem, or prayer

Before starting the ritual you might want to just take a few deep breaths to centre yourself. Remember that it is okay if you cry. This is your space and time to express your grief in whatever ways you need to do so. If all you can do is cry during your planned ritual time, most likely, that is what you need to do. Whatever happens in between the opening and closing of the ritual is completely up to you. 

More Resources

I personally have found great comfort around grief and loss from the following three writers, David Kessler, Francis Weller and Stephen Levine. I can highly recommend both their books and talks.

Finding Meaning The Sixth Stage of Grief by David Kessler 

The Wild Edge of Sorrow Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief by Francis Weller   

Unattended Sorrow: Recovering from Loss and Reviving the Heart  by Stephen Levine

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.


Book a counselling session today!

See also: What is Grief?

The Five Stages of Grief

Finding Meaning in Grief