Who doesn’t love a wedding?
I could be watching a cheesy romantic comedy from the 90s. The moment the bride walks down the aisle, I tear up. It always gets me. It’s such a cherished public ritual — whether it’s a large religious ceremony or a gathering of friends and family on the beach. We all know what this means, what it signifies.
An article in Scientific American sums up rituals nicely: “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.”
In public rituals, we feast, we fast, we cry, we dance, we give gifts, we play music. When we participate in them we feel good, seen, and validated. Notably, we feel loved.
Though we’re familiar with the various public rituals that mark the many milestones in our lives, it’s the motions we go through alone that may have greater impact.
The ritual of performing rituals
Take the process of grieving, for example. Public mourning rituals occur across nearly all cultures, but thriving after loss may reside in practicing private rituals.
A study in The Journal of Experimental Psychology sought to examine how people cope with loss. The researchers found that an overwhelming majority of people — 80 percent — partake in private rituals. And when study participants were asked to reflect on past rituals or take part in new ones, they experienced lower levels of grief.
One participant described their ritual following a breakup: “I returned alone to the location of the breakup each month on the anniversary of the breakup to help cope with my loss and think things over.”
Private rituals, to mourn any kind of loss, can indeed really help. I’ve partaken in them all my life.
When my oldest brother died two years ago, I created a kind of ad hoc memorial on my window ledge. I chose a baby picture, a small glass bird, a cardinal, his Airborne wings, and yahrzeit candles.
Quote widget: Every morning, before I left for work, I’d light the candles and read a prayer from Tecumseh, a Native American chief — the same one he had on his refrigerator in the last few months of his life. Sometimes I’d talk to him, and sometime I’d just read the prayer.
When there was another death in my family — my cousin Felicia — I bought an array of spring flowers: larkspur, zinnias, roses. I lit tall white tapers on my desk, which faces south, into the afternoon light.
When I lived in Miami, my grandfather died. To mourn him, I cleaned out a small glass jar, spray-painted the top gold, and filled it with white shells from the beach. I still have it. I’ll always carry it with me.
Navigating loss and the power of personal ritual
These rituals have helped me mourn, grieve, and find closure on the departures of loved ones in their own unique ways. I’ve also come to learn that while traditional public mourning rituals are important, they don’t address the loneliness and emptiness when everyone else goes back to their lives.
Quote card widget: In my late 30s, my mother died. At the formal, public ritual of her funeral in Wisconsin, I was numb. I didn’t shed a tear. The loss was too enormous for me to comprehend.
Six months later, back at home in New York City, I felt like I was coming down with the flu. I was sure I had a high fever. But I wasn’t sick. The time had come to grieve the loss of my mom. And it was so overwhelming.
Years before, a friend had given me a gorgeous requiem by John Rutter. I dug it out of the closet and played it when I felt the time was right, dissolving in tears and sadness that brought me to my knees. But as it ended, so did the tears.
I realized this song could help me contain it, move through it, and survive. I added candles, incense, and wrapped myself in a blanket that she’d crocheted.
Starting your own personal ritual
For anyone who needs a personal ritual but isn’t sure how to begin, here are some suggestions:
- Try different things and be open-minded. It may take you several tries to create the meaningful ritual you want or need. I try to work from instinct and give it time to gel. You might begin with something tangible: a picture, a piece of jewelry, an article of clothing. If you love music, experiment with songs that resonate for you.
- Timing is important. Pick a time of day when you know you can be alone and free from distraction. This is your time to be vulnerable and mourn in a way that’s right for you. Like me, you may not be ready to grieve immediately following a death. That’s OK.
- Try candles. Candles are incorporated almost universally for all rituals, public and private. I love them — they create a sense of mystery and a sense of calm. Maybe you can try choosing a scent that’s personal to you or the person you’re grieving.
- Let nature inspire you. A friend of mine who lost her husband created an outdoor ritual. She tore up letters and pictures and watched them float away in a river. If you’re a nature lover, this may work for you.
- Visiting familiar places can help. Even though he was gone, I’d stop by my brother’s apartment after he died. I’d buy fresh flowers at the corner deli and a cup of coffee and sit on his stoop for a while. I’d leave the flowers behind. Maybe there’s a place you can visit at a certain time of day.
- Language is so powerful and healing. Find a passage of poetry or a prayer that you love and read it out loud.
Public rituals give us a sense of community and belonging. They provide a template for our behavior and our emotions. Private rituals, I believe, help us come to terms with the new and strange world we now inhabit.
They’re personal and speak only to us. No one else has to understand or even validate this — we work it out on our own time, and in our own way.
Lillian Ann Slugocki writes about health, art, language, commerce, tech, politics, and pop culture. Her work, nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Web, has been published in Salon, The Daily Beast, BUST Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, and many others. She has an MA from NYU/The Gallatin School in writing and lives outside of New York City with her Shih Tzu, Molly. Find more of her work on her website and find her on Twitter.