Rituals are a powerful healing tool for shifting the energetic pattern in a situation or in a space. If you’re dealing with grief, either from a death that’s happened recently or one that’s coming up in the future, a ritual can help you move that energy of grief through you, and out of you, so it doesn’t get bogged up inside you.
One of the rituals I often suggest to my clients is done in the shower. In the morning, let the hot water fall on each of your chakras, down your centre line. See the grief as a thick, tarry black energy that moves out of you. It leaves you where it doesn’t serve, and returns to the earth where it can be transformed and where it nourishes
When we’re facing a serious illness, either for ourselves or for someone we love, hope can be a tricky thing. We’re encouraged to be hopeful because, of course, the opposite is to be hopeless, and who wants to do that?
We don’t want to “give up hope,” but if a diagnosis is terminal, what exactly is it we’re hoping for? Miracle recoveries happen, it’s true, but they’re rare. It’s not a great idea to put all your eggs in that basket because that might not be where things go.
This hopeful/hopeless dynamic sets up a kind of false either/or. In fact, life is more complex than that. I have a beautiful prayer that I share with my clients, and it allows them to hold the situation in a more both/and way.
The prayer has two parts. The first is, “If there is any way that this difficult fate can be avoided, please, please, let that be my path.” The second part of the prayer is, “If this hard thing cannot be avoided, if this is my destiny, please, please, give me the skills and the strength to meet it with grace and healing.”
This allows us to hold both of these and instead of being hopeful or hopeless, we’re open-eyed, we’re realistic, and we’re prepared for whatever comes.
I got a request to make a video about how to tell whether or not we’re stuck in grief.
There are three important things to know about grieving and timing. The first one is that everyone’s journey is completely unique. You will move at your pace. It won’t look like other people’s pace, and what’s really important is to honour your own process and not try and be somewhere you’re not.
The second thing to know is that grieving is an action. We don’t just sit in grief and eventually it goes away. It’s something we do. When you sprain your ankle, you do exercises so you don’t get a hardening of scar tissue that causes you limitations later. Similarly, when you lose someone you love, we need to do the grieving, otherwise we get a kind of hardening of that grief, and it also causes us limitations. We need to learn what those things exercises are, and to get help, because it’s really, really difficult to do this alone. If you get that help, you can actually move through the grief.
The third thing to know is that grief doesn’t end. It becomes less intense over time. We become more capable of being with it and we integrate it (if we get the help and if we do the work.) It still comes in waves, but the waves are further apart and they’re less overwhelming.
The short answer is, yes, you can get stuck in grief, but if you’re honouring your own process, if you’re doing your grieving with help, then you’re probably going at exactly your own perfect speed.
You may have heard the word animism, and wondered what it meant, and why it might be relevant for ritual practitioners, especially those of us who work with people at the end of life.
Animism is a worldview, it’s a way of looking at and making sense of the world around us. It comes from the word “anima”, which is Latin for soul, and it has the same root as the word “animate”. If something is animated, it is living. Animism is a way of seeing the world that recognizes that it’s all alive, and that it’s all conscious.
In an animist worldview, living human beings are just one kind of people. There are also cloud people, and tree people, and ancestor people, and all varieties of different people. A healthy community is one in which all those different people are in right relationship with each other.
Animism is in contrast to the Western materialist worldview, which says that living human people (and particularly some more than other living human people) are people, and everything else is a thing. This view says that we are unique, and we are the ones whose relationships matter, and that the world exists around us. What that means for healing in a Western perspective, is that Western approaches often separate.
This view has 25 different medical specialists who work with different parts of our body. If something’s wrong with the body, this approach wants to break it down, find exactly the substance that’s missing and then add that. It’s a very separating, dispersing view. It’s not wrong, it brings us lots of useful information, but it’s not a whole picture. The other half of the picture is the way of looking at the world that says it’s about relationship, it’s holistic. This part of my body is related to this part of my body.
Rituals, by definition, are a holistic healing approach. It’s an animist healing approach. Rituals are about bringing parts of a system back into relationship with each other. Parts of a family, different members of a family, different members in a community, the living and the dead in right relationship. Putting us in right relationship with the spirit realm, with the land. Even building right relationship between the past, and the present, and the future.
The roots of the word “healing” are related to the roots of the word “holy” and “whole”, and ritual really brings a “getting larger” view, as opposed to separating and a “getting smaller” view.
Especially when you’re facing the end of your life, or the end of the life of someone you love, it’s too much to understand that from a small perspective. If we take it apart, it will never make sense. But if we can find a larger perspective and a larger way to make meaning, if we can connect with a larger spiritual whole, with community, with compassion, with nature, then there’s a way to find healing through that process. That’s an animist approach and rituals help us do that.
Where people sit at a funeral ceremony can feel like a small decision on the outside, but on the inside, it’s a really big decision. It’s similar to the order in which the surviving family is listed in the obituary. It’s an important symbolic statement about who’s who in the family, and particularly about who’s who relative to everybody else.
When someone dies in a family, the whole system is disorganized. All the structures that existed fall apart and new ones need to be built. These re-ordering rituals, like the obituary, like the funeral seating, like the head table at a wedding, help make a statement about the restructuring of the family.
It’s important that people are given their right place in the system, but sometimes this can be challenging. With a big family, it may end up that the 16 year-old granddaughter’s new boyfriend is sitting closer to the front of the church than the person’s own daughter. Something’s not right about that. With blended families, and new partners and half- and step- and all kinds of siblings, it can be hard to figure out the order.
There’s no recipe but there’s a delicate balance and it’s important to give it attention, because when you get the order correct, there’s a rightness to it, it just feels right.
If you can’t get it absolutely right, then it’s most important that it’s most right for the people who are closest to the one who’s died. We need to honour those who were here first, or who are most connected. Their place needs to be clear because they are the most impacted by this.
Meeting death well is a soul process, and our souls are nourished by beauty, and meaning, symbols and imagery.
The more the rituals around a death really reflect the person who’s died, and their family and their community, and what’s true for those people, the more meaningful, and the more soul-healing those rituals are. Where the funeral is held, what music is played, what food is served, all the little details make a difference in helping us integrate, because we find some beauty and meaning where, often, beauty and meaning is hard to find.
One of the ways we can find beauty and meaning, and beautiful imagery, is around the urn we choose. When someone is cremated, their ashes need to go somewhere. You can buy a traditional urn, if that fits for you, and it may fit perfectly. But it’s interesting to think about other options.
When my uncle died, he loved his beaten-up old guitar so we dug a hole, we laid the guitar in it, and we poured his ashes into the guitar. My mother is clear that she wants to be buried in this beautiful ceramic soup tureen that her uncle gave her, 40 years ago. My father was a geologist, for him, the earth and the stones were the most important thing. We poured his ashes directly in the earth.
I’ve heard of lots of other great things that people choose to be buried in, what matters is that it’s fitting for you: canning jars, Harley Davidson gas tanks, jewelry boxes, cigar boxes. It can also be a beautiful thing to make the container. Even a wooden box from the craft store, painted up, and filled with beautiful notes. Anything that makes it more meaningful, and gives you a way to participate, can make the whole process more beautiful and more healing.
Grief is an energy, and it has a watery-ness to it. It’s not just because it’s connected to tears, but because it flows.
We know the feeling of overwhelming grief; it can feel like being flooded, we get more than we can handle, we drown in it. There’s a way that grief kind of re-circulates, where we’re crying and crying, or grieving and grieving, and we’re not moving anywhere. It’s like being stuck in an eddy on a river.
Grief is designed to cleanse us, to move through us, and help us move out the pain from the loss so we can get clear and clean again. It’s designed to heal our broken hearts. In order to do this, though, grief needs to move, not to be stuck, and not be too much, not be flooding us.
Rituals can help us contain our grief. That’s not containing like putting it in a little box, and keeping it locked up. It’s containing like giving the river banks. So that it can flow. If grief is contained, it’s not flooding, it’s not stuck, it’s moving at a pace we can navigate.
Rituals, and the people who help us in those rituals, create a structure to allow the grief to flow at a pace that we can handle. They give the river banks. It’s part of skillful grieving, to find tools to allow our grief to move, without overwhelming us.
It’s normal to have anger around a death, and we can be angry at lots of things.
We can be angry at systems. Usually the people within healthcare systems are amazing, but sometimes, the systems themselves, and the bureaucracy, are infuriating.
We can be angry at the person who’s dying, or who has died, angry about the choices they made during their life, angry about choices they made as they died. We might be angry about who they were to us in our life.
We might be angry at other family members, about choices they’re making.
We might be angry at destiny, at fate, at God.
Those are all normal responses, and what’s important is to give them space, and acknowledge them. Let what’s true be true. Don’t deny it or repress it because it doesn’t seem “appropriate”. Often, anger covers grief, and when we find tools for moving our anger, we get more access to the grief that’s underneath it.
One of my favorite phrases is, “Anger out, not at.” This means finding practices that allow you to move your anger, not at the person, but just out of you. Then, you’ll get more access to your grief. And if you need to talk to somebody about what you’re angry about, you’re more present and more sane, rather than so triggered and energetic.
It’s really powerful to allow anger into a grieving space, and to learn tools for moving it, and skills for meeting it effectively.
I often talk to people who are going through a death or a loss, and they say things like, “I’m doing really well! I’m staying strong. I’m staying positive.”
I think what that’s often code for is, “I’m not letting myself be sad. I’m not crying, I’m not allowing myself to grieve.”
That’s a really understandable response, because we live in a culture that has given us no skills and no tools for how to be with grief, for how to actually allow ourselves to move through these difficult situations, in a way that honours the grief. So, instead we think “doing well” is keeping it locked in.
I want to offer a different model for what it might be to stay strong. Maybe, being strong is finding the strength and the support, to be with what’s really happening, to be present to these incredibly difficult emotions.
To do well is to be attuned to what’s happening for us, and giving space to all of what’s true. Because, if we give ourselves time to move into the grief and let it flow, then we can come out again. And then we can go in, and come out.
It comes in waves. If we keep it locked back, and locked back, and it never gets a chance to move, it’s really hard to find a healing path.
I’m trying to start a little revolution about what it means to do “well” when someone’s dying, and it might mean to let your grief flow. Everybody’s grief looks different, it might not be public tears, but find your own way to give your grief space.
As a death doula, I often meet clients who come to me when the medical system has said to them, “There’s nothing more that can be done.” That statement is really a reflection of the limited lens of Western medicine.
Palliative and hospice care are different, but most Western medicine says, “If tinkering with the body won’t solve it, that’s the end of the story.” That’s about curing. Not everything can be cured, and that’s natural. But the soul is something very different than the body.
We are not our bodies. We’re our souls. Our souls live in our bodies. Our souls can experience healing whether we’re in our bodies or not.
The healing of the soul is about beauty, and imagery, and relationship, and the evolution of our consciousness. If we’re going to meet death well, we need a soul-map for the process.
Death is really hard. When we’re dying, or when someone we love dies, it’s hard. Mostly we don’t want it to happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It’s not a bug in the system that needs to be fixed. Nature doesn’t design things that way. If it’s here, there’s a purpose to it. So, what is it?
Perhaps one of the purposes of death is that it helps us release love. Big loss and big grief show us how much we really love each other. In our collective body, and in our communities, sometimes death gives us a kind of reboot of what’s really important. It reminds us of our connection to each other, of how much we need each other, and of the love that we feel, from this side of the veil to the other.
Meeting death with love, and appreciating its purpose, is of service to the living, the dying, and the dead.
Our pets are members of our family and when they approach the end of their lives, it can be really hard for us. Animals love us unconditionally. There aren’t many people in our world who love us unconditionally.
When I’m working with clients who are facing a pet’s death, and thinking about making the decision to euthanize, for whatever good reason that may be, I really encourage them to tell the pet what’s going to happen. Let your dog, or cat, or guinea pig know what your plans are.
Animals are sentient beings. They are in their own process of soul evolution. They deserve to have some warning so they can prepare. It will make the process easier for them, and it will make it easier for you.