6 Grieving Rituals That Can Help You Heal

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Just as common acts of remembrance such attending funerals and wakes and sitting shiva provide some comfort after a loved one’s death, so do more individual rituals, such as writing a letter to the person who has died. A recent Harvard study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that rituals help ease grief by increasing a person’s feeling of control, even for people who didn’t necessarily believe in the rituals. It didn’t matter what the ritual was, as long as it was a purposeful act. (Related: Lifting Weight: On Grieving at the Gym.)

Experts stress, though, that the key to feeling better while we grieve isn’t the absence of pain and sorrow. “Feeling better happens when we understand the source of our pain, which is our love for the one who died,” says grief counselor Patrick O’Malley, PhD, who is the author of Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorry of Loss and also a bereaved parent for more than three decades. “We grieve because we loved.” Read on for six rituals that may help you cope with your loss:

1. Write a letter

When a death occurs, even when it is expected, it can feel confusing; it’s difficult to make sense of this kind of tragedy, says Julia Colangelo, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker and mindfulness therapist in New York City. “Writing a letter to the person who has died can begin to put the pieces of your loss in order,” she says. “By writing a letter, you’re laying out the facts of the event and then integrating your own thoughts and feelings about how it unfolded in your life.” Revisiting this letter over the next weeks and months when you are hit with waves of emotion can be grounding, and also give you a sense of perspective. 

2. Keep a special something

Surrounding yourself with mementos of a dearly departed relative can be extremely comforting. But this shouldn’t be something you feel pressure to do, Colangelo says. To move on, some people actually need to clear out belongings, and that is perfectly okay. Even so, you might want to keep one small keepsake to help you cope with loss. “It can be as simple as having a worry stone in your pocket that reminds you of the person every time you search for your keys or your phone, bringing you peace and calm with a positive feeling of being connected,” she says.

Or consider collecting something that reminds you of the person who died. “A widow I know finds just the right fall leaf to take home each year after hiking on a favorite mountain trail she hiked with her husband,” says O’Malley.

3. Find joy in signs

After Sandra Rea-McGinty’s ex-husband, good friend, and the father of her three sons fell from a ladder and died, she experienced signs that have been helping her cope with her grief. This is something many mourners experience, too. “For me that comes in the form of pennies,” she says. “I find pennies almost everywhere I go now—shiny pennies that are heads up. This has helped me process my loss and feel a connection.”

Whether it is suddenly seeing an animal that reminds of your deceased loved one everywhere, or noting strange weather patterns you’ve ever seen before, “These sightings can bring comfort, if we welcome that,” explains Colangelo. “It can be a way to help someone feel connected to the person.”

4. Plant a tree

By planting a tree shortly after the loss of a loved one, you can draw some degree of consolation during your months and years ahead. “You will take comfort in watching it grow year by year and honor your lost loved one at the same time,” says Jill A. Johnson-Young, a licensed clinical social worker in Riverside, California.

5. Remember together

Bringing family and friends together to reminisce can help everyone feel more at peace with a loss. “On occasion, my family will gather at a bench dedicated to our mother on the local running trail she loved and toast her with a glass of champagne,” O’Malley says. “I know of a family whose son has been deceased for many years yet every year they invite all of his friends to dinner to share stories of his life.” By gathering on a regular basis with others who were close to your loved one, you get to share stories and feel connected to that person again.

6. Acknowledge your loss on holidays

In many cultures, holidays are marked by paying homage to loved ones who have died. “Our Japanese daughter-in-law shared with us a beautiful ritual from her culture: On Christmas day, the three generations of our family go to the cemetery and reverently place food on the gravesites of our loved ones,” O’Malley says. Placing flowers on the gravestone on a holiday or birthday is a common way to express loss throughout the world. “This moment provides a sacred connection to those who we love and who have died,” he says. 

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