Annual Candle Lighting

According to behavioral scientists and Harvard professors Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton, there are real benefits to rituals, religious or otherwise. I agree, especially related to grief, based on my own experience and my observations of the bereaved families with whom I’ve worked.

From their May, 2013 article in Scientific American, “Rituals – the symbolic behaviors we perform before, during, and after meaningful event – are surprisingly ubiquitous, across culture and time. Rituals take an extraordinary array of shapes and forms. At times performed in communal or religious settings, at times performed in solitude; at times involving fixed, repeated sequences of actions, at other times not. People engage in rituals with the intention of achieving a wide set of desired outcomes, from reducing their anxiety to boosting their confidence, alleviating their grief to performing well in a competition – or even making it rain.

Rituals in the face of losses such as the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship ( …) are ubiquitous. There is such a wide variety of known mourning rituals that they can even be contradictory: crying near the dying is viewed as disruptive by Tibetan Buddhists but as a sign of respect by Catholic Latinos; Hindu rituals encourage the removal of hair during mourning, while growing hair (in the form of a beard) is the preferred ritual for Jewish males.

Making lanterns for the Lantern Walk

Our results suggest that engaging in rituals mitigates grief caused by both life-changing losses (such as the death of a loved one) and more mundane ones. (…) While some rituals are unlikely to be effective – knocking on wood will not bring rain – many everyday rituals make a lot of sense and are surprisingly effective.””

I also found comfort in ritual when grieving the loss of my three children and my 30-year marriage. Whether it was lighting candles, releasing live butterflies or helium balloons with messages, having an anniversary Mass performed, planting trees or setting up scholarships in my older son’s name — it felt good to mark the milestones, celebrate his life or just honor him.

Once a year, our chapter participates in our international grief organization’s Memorial Candle Lighting plus we add our own twist of a Memory Tree with ornaments. There is music, readings and everyone gets to acknowledge their child. The ritual comforts us as we support each other. For our chapter’s 10th anniversary, we released live butterflies and a few balloons with each parent having written a message in marker. We let them go at the same time and they rose into the sky like a colorful bouquet together. See the short video.

10th Anniversary Balloon Release

I could go on a bout lots of other rituals we use in grief, but suffice it to say that ritual helps. We should all use rituals meaningful to us in our healing, no need to get fancy.

Love and healing,

Barbara J Hopkinson
Author, Speaker & Grief Mentor “A Butterfly’s Journey”
[email protected] / 617-410-6309

Contact me: complimentary 30-minute “Healing” conversation

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