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The Power of Mourning Rituals and How They Can Help us Cope With Grief

One could argue that we, as human race, should have learned a thing or two about grieving and mourning over the thousands of years we’ve inhabited this planet. There is no life without death. It’s a simple truth and we do know it – yet, we have somehow become strangely estranged from death and dying. Whereas mourning rituals have a long tradition in most cultures and religions around the globe, particularly the Western world has lost or maybe abandoned most of them. Stephen Jenkinson, the author of the book “Die Wise”, states that we live in a “death-phobic culture”. It shows in the great unease that most of us experience when someone is trying to have a conversation about death, let alone if we become witnesses of a public display of grief. Some of the most commonly asked questions on Google indicate to what degree many of us are feeling at a loss when we are facing loss:

  • What is normal grieving?
  • What is the best way to deal with grief?
  • What helps with grieving?
  • How do you get over the loss of a loved one?
  • How long does mourning last?
  • Does grief get worse before it gets better?
  • Why is mourning important?
  • What do mourning people do?

This article briefly explains the difference between grief and mourning, before it takes a closer look at the power of rituals and how they can help us cope with loss. We introduce a range of mourning rituals from different cultures and religions around the world and give some ideas for simple, private mourning rituals that can easily be adjusted to your individual needs and preferences.

What does “mourning” mean?

Sometimes mourning and grieving are used interchangeably. There is an important difference between those two words, though: Grief refers to our emotions and thoughts, our internal reaction to and experience of loss. Mourning describes how we express our grief outside of ourselves – for example through crying, choosing to wear black clothes for a certain amount of time, etc.

The power of mourning rituals:

Rituals are still part of our everyday lives. We might have a morning or evening ritual that helps us prepare for the day (e.g. the first cup of coffee and where and how we take it) or get ready for bed (e.g. brushing our teeth and reading a few pages in a book or listening to a podcast). Maybe we have a ritual for when we meet up with a specific friend or family member – the way we greet each other or something that we always do when we get together. Or on a certain day each year, we return to a place that’s special to us. The rituals in our lives are usually influenced by the culture we grew up in, our family and how we were raised, or the spiritual practices or religion we follow. Therapist Karla Helbert defines rituals as follows: They “are made up of actions that represent ideas, thoughts, myths, or beliefs about a particular thing. Rituals give purpose to action and always serve to connect us to something else, generally something greater than our own solitary selves.”

Even in the West, we used to engage in elaborate public death rituals. Their main purpose was to prevent isolation and promote connection with and support through the community. Discussing Philippe Ariès book “The hour of our death”, authors Daniel Wojcik and Robert Dobler write in a piece called “What ancient cultures teach us about grief, mourning and continuity of life”: “The social aspect of these customs kept death public and “tame” through the enactment of familiar ceremonies that comforted mourners. Grief was expressed in an open and unrestrained way that was cathartic and communally shared, very much in contrast with the modern emphasis on controlling one’s emotions and keeping grief private.”

Within the last decade, science has discovered just how powerful mourning rituals can be. And surprisingly, we don’t need to express our grief publicly for a mourning ritual to help us cope better with the loss we are facing. George Bonanno has studied grief and resilience for over 25 years. The professor of Clinical Psychology who teaches at the University of Columbia has found that more than half the mourners (50-60%) whom he observed had stopped grieving within a month of the loss they experienced.

Why do even simple and very personal mourning rituals help us cope better with grief?

Francesca Gino and Michael I. Norton from Harvard Business School conducted a study to find out what helps people cope with extreme loss. It got titled “Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries” and showed, to the surprise of both researchers, that personal rituals that were performed alone significantly lessened grief – regardless if the person believed it would help them or not, as later experiments showed. One of the participants of their study continued to go to the hairdresser once a month for as he had done with his late wife for 15 years following her death. Another example is a widow that washed her late husband’s car once a week as he had done when he was still alive. 

The above-mentioned examples show that a ritual can be very simple, very personal and yet effective. Why do they work, though? What is the secret behind the power of mourning rituals? The death of someone we love can turn our world – as we know it – upside down. Maybe we were as close to them as speaking on a daily or weekly basis. They might have been a constant fixture in our life, someone we relied on, someone we asked for help and advice, someone we shared the big and small things with. And from one moment to the next, they’re gone. A future with them that once seemed certain, gets replaced by chaos and the messiness of grief. Death forces us to acknowledge the fragility of life and our own helplessness and powerlessness in the face of loss. We lose our footing. Mourning rituals, as pointless as they may seem to an outsider, can help us gain back some sense of control. They provide structure, order and comfort as well as a sense of stability and continuity. Mourning rituals help us to counteract those aforementioned feelings of helplessness and powerlessness.

Ideas for and examples of private and public mourning rituals:

The following list introduces some ideas for and examples of mourning rituals that can be done in private or shared with family, friends or a wider community. Take them as inspiration and make them your own. At the end of the day, any action that has emotional meaning to you can serve as a mourning ritual. Also, remember, that there is no right or wrong way to grieve or mourn nor is there a set timeline. You can choose to do the ritual as needed – which might be daily, weekly, monthly or on special occasions like birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, etc.

  • You can – by yourself or together with others – plant one or several trees or flowers in memory of the person you lost. 
  • You can build or donate a bench in memory of your loved one and have it put in a place that was special to them (maybe they really loved the local Botanical Garden or a certain spot on a nearby hiking trail).
  • Light a special candle
  • Write one or several letters or emails to the deceased – keep them or burn them or maybe send them as a message in a bottle
  • Just listen or even dance to their favourite music and allow yourself to feel whatever emotions come up
  • Create a scrapbook with your favourite memories of them or make a time capsule that contains things that they liked or remind you of them and bury it
  • Make their favourite meal or snack and eat it while watching their favourite movie
  • Volunteer for a cause that was important to the person who died
  • A family in Canada who lost their daughter in an accident chose to invite the children of their small community to have ice cream (their first-born’s favourite flavours) from the local van every year on her birthday

Death and mourning rituals from around the world

Traditional Irish “merry wake”

Our neighbours in Ireland have a long tradition of interspersing sadness with merrymaking during the wake. When someone died, the community would gather together, share food and drink, wail, lament and pray, but also play games with and pranks on one another and even engage in lifting the corpse in a contest of strength. To keep evil spirits away from the deceased, their family provided tobacco and pipes in every room of the house and every man who came to pay their respects had to take one or several puffs.

Jewish mourning rituals: “Sitting Shiva” and “Shloshim”

Judaism is extremely rich in mourning traditions. We are only going to cover some aspects here, but you can read in-depth about it in our blog post “Traditions & Etiquette – A Guide to Understanding Jewish Funerals”. Jews have a very structured approach to grieving and mourning which can be a source of comfort. They sit Shiva for seven days after someone has died, which is followed by Shloshim, the second mourning period that lasts for 30 days. During both times there are a number of rules, customs and rituals that have to be observed by the mourners. When sitting Shiva, Jews don’t leave their house. They don’t work and don’t do any chores – this includes cooking. Meals are provided by community members who pay a Shiva visit. They also sit and pray with the family of the deceased. Having visitors in their house not only provides physical and emotional support to the mourners but also offers them the chance to speak about the loved one who died if they feel the need/wish to do so. Jewish mourning rituals provide the bereaved with the time and space to be with their grief and integrate the loss they have experienced before gradually re-integrating them into the community life.

Mexico: “Día de los Muertos” – The Day of the Dead (31. October & 2. November)

The Mexicans take “Día de los Muertos” – The Day of the Dead as an occasion to honour their ancestors by celebrating life in the most joyous and colourful manner. They believe that during those two days, the veil between our world and the spirit world dissolves and the souls of their loved ones can join them in this realm for a brief reunion. Día de los Muertos involves costumes, parades, music and dance, and food. Most importantly, though, the Mexicans build an altar – the so-called ofrenda – for their dead loved ones with offerings ranging from food over symbols to photos which they gather around to pray and tell joyful anecdotes.

China: QingMing Festival – Tomb Sweeping Day or Pure Brightness Festival 

The QingMing Festival is an important Chinese holiday that takes place in early April – 15 days after the Spring Equinox. To show respect to their dead ancestors, Chinese people clean their tombs during QingMing. Whereas tending to a grave once a year doesn’t sound like a too strenuous activity to a Westerner, it truly depends on the wealth of a family in China as well as on where they live how much of an ordeal it will be. In the countryside it was and in some regions still is custom to bury your loved ones in nature at a place with good Feng Shui. That can for example be on top of a hill or mountain. If the family is not wealthy enough to have erected a headstone and have the area around the grave concreted, the tomb-sweeping day might involve chopping weeds down with a machete. Apart from grave maintenance, QingMing also involves offerings to the dead (e.g. food and drink), leaving paper hell money, burning incense, eating special foods, releasing kites into the air for good luck and spending time in nature.

Japanese: Toro Nagashi – The floating lantern festival

During the Buddhist festival of O-bon, the souls of the deceased are believed to briefly return to their homes – similar to the Mexican believes around the days of the“Día de los Muertos”. At the end of it, people in Japan celebrate the Toro Nagashi festival. It lasts for three days at the end of August, during which thousands of candle-lit lanterns are released into rivers or the sea at dusk. The lights of the lanterns are meant to commemorate loved ones, ancestors and even pets and guide their souls back to the spirit world

Ethiopia (Dorze community) & Tanzania (Nyakyusa people) – life-affirming funeral rituals

A small ethnic group in Ethiopia called “Dorze” engage in life-affirming celebrations that include dancing and singing after a funeral to avenge the deceased and defeat death. The Nyakyusa people of Tanzania have a similar merry approach when it comes to death rituals. Among them, it is custom to not only dance after a funeral but also flirt with by standing mourners.

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