Monday, April 13, 2015

Voices of Experience: Healing Rituals Help A Grieving Family

Photo by Elaine Mansfield
Rituals do not always involve words, occasions, officials, or an audience. Rituals are often silent, solitary, and self-contained. The most powerful rites of passage are reflective--when you look back on your life again and again, paying attention to the rivers you have crossed and the gates you have opened and walked on through, the thresholds you have passed over. I see ritual when people sit together silently by an open fire. Remembering. As human beings have remembered for thousands and thousands of years.  ~ Robert Fulghum, in From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Daily Lives

For 25 years, Elaine Mansfield has taught and written extensively about nutrition, exercise and women's health. Since her husband’s death in 2008, her work and writing have focused on end-of-life and bereavement issues. She also facilitates bereavement support groups for people who have lost spouses or partners and writes for the Hospicare newsletter and website. Elaine is a strong believer in the healing power of ritual, as evidenced in her popular TEDx talk “Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss” and in the piece she shares with us below. Many of the rituals she mentions here are described in detail in her beautiful personal memoir, Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief.

“If you’d like to put something in your husband’s cremation box, do it tomorrow,” the funeral director said as I signed papers for transport of my husband Vic’s body from the hospital where he’d died just after midnight. “Before the body changes too much,” the man said under his breath. I’d asked him to do nothing to Vic’s body except hold it until cremation day.

Put things in Vic’s cremation box? I hadn’t thought of that! Exhausted as I was, my heart jumped in recognition. I decided to turn “identifying the body” into a healing ritual.

“What should we put in your dad’s cremation box?” I asked my sons the next morning. Burned out and hurting, I was grateful for a specific task. We made copies of favorite family photos and gathered flowers, written prayers, and feathers we’d found on our land. I added Vic’s favorite chocolate and coffee to my basket. It felt good to be playful at this sad moment.

At the funeral home, we lined the cremation box with a soft white blanket and surrounded Vic’s body with the things we’d selected. Then wrote a prayer on the outside of his cremation box. We had created a spiritual vessel for his journey.

A few days later, family and friends honored Vic’s cremation with favorite readings and silent meditation. After a large community memorial service a week later, I created a simple altar in my bedroom to honor Vic and my loss with photos of Vic, our family, and teachers who had been important us.

Homemade personal rituals bound my sons and me together as we grieved. In time, I realized I could keep creating simple rituals as long as they helped us. When we honored our loss together, we made deep connection with each other. My childhood family was silent and stoic when my dad died, so I’m grateful my sons and I avoided the painful isolation and loneliness that caused.

Two months after Vic’s death, my sons and I buried his ashes in the woods under a favorite red oak tree just as Vic had requested. We sang “Let It Be,” read poems, said prayers, and built a rock sculpture over the spot. This became a place to honor our grief together, the way another family might visit the cemetery.

At the one year anniversary, my family and friends joined me to walk to the place where Vic’s ashes were buried. Along with tears, we celebrated Vic’s life and our bonds with him and each other.

A few days before Christmas when both sons were home, we created an altar with evergreens, pinecones, candles, and stones. I put a photo of Vic in the back looking out at us. We lit candles and spoke about our hopes for the New Year. A solstice ritual became a yearly family event, a loving remembrance of Vic and each other.

A few days before my oldest son’s wedding, we marked Vic’s five-year death anniversary with readings, stories, flowers, and candles. After acknowledging our shared grief, we were ready to dance and laugh together.

Personal rituals continue to heal and support my family and me. Nearly seven years after Vic’s death, I mark his birthday, our wedding anniversary, and his death anniversary. I frequently walk to the cairn we built under the red oak tree, especially when I’m sad. When I don’t acknowledge and honor sorrow, it sneaks up on me with moodiness or despair.

Anyone can create rituals with only an intention and a moment to turn inward. Everything else is optional. It’s never too late, and it’s never the wrong time or place to turn our thoughts toward those we love.


What personal rituals already comfort you? Can you imagine creating family rituals to honor the person you love? Will your family participate willingly or do you need to ease them into it?

© 2015 by Elaine Mansfield

About the Author: Elaine Mansfield's Leaning into Love: A Spiritual Journey through Grief was published by Larson Publications in October 2014. Elaine writes about love and grief from a spiritual perspective that reflects over forty years as a student of philosophy, Buddhism, Jungian psychology, mythology, and meditation. Her popular TEDx talk is called “Good Grief! What I Learned from Loss.” She facilitates workshops and hospice bereavement groups in the Finger Lakes area of New York. Find Elaine’s blog, event calendar, publications, and more about her book at On Twitter @elainemansfiel7.

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