Time alone does not affect the depths of grief; active mourning does. Using ritual is a task of active mourning. There are three types of grief rituals used in the active mourning process. They are honoring, letting go, and self-transformation. Rituals function as a route for affirming a continuing bond, marking a transition in a person’s grief journey, validating a relationship or the legacy of the deceased, and promoting symbolic reconciliation with the deceased (Doka 2012).
Barbara Dossey, a holistic nursing pioneer states, “Rituals of healing have a profound sense of the sacred. When we use them to renew the fabrics of our lives that become unraveled by change, chaos, illness, and death, a sense of balance and harmony emerges that reconnect our energies and meet our needs of the moment.”
As an IPLD or death doula, if you are going to hold space for your families/clients using ritual; or suggest the use of rituals in the phase of anticipatory grief or the mourning phase, it would do you well to create a definition of what a grief & remembrance ritual is for yourself. There are a myriad of definitions for the word “ritual”; depending on culture, purpose, spiritual or religious influences, author, etc. In order to really connect to this sacred mourning task, you need to delve into how ritual will function in the work that you do as a doula. The only way you can do this is to contemplate the act of ritual for yourself. Ingest, reflect, explore, do, uncover, discover…bring to light the power of ritual.
You also need to understand that rituals have a cornerstone foundation and structure. They are based on specific steps that should be executed, in order to create movement and transition. It is difficult to elicit real change based on flower petals and pretty stones, if there is no intention and structure to the grief or remembrance ritual. A mom who recently experienced a perinatal loss, shared her confusion with me about attempting to create a remembrance ritual for her baby. Her grief counsellor assigned her a task of choosing a ritual to explore her loss. She combed through pregnant and infant loss (PAIL) websites and chose a couple options. The website told you what to do but now how to do it. This mom expressed that she had become really frustrated because “she didn’t know how to make planting a rose bush a memorial ritual to honor her baby.” What did one do or say to bring the act of digging a hole and planting a bush; to an act of affirming a continuing bond with her baby? The answer became crystal clear once she understood the foundation and steps of ritual creation.
The definition of grief and remembrance rituals in the work that I do as an infant and pregnancy loss doula (IPLD) and Life-Cycle Celebrant has a foundation in connection, innate healing wisdom and intention. Through my eyes, they are specific events that bring unity into our lives by helping us connect to a higher purpose or find deeper meaning. A grief or remembrance ritual is an amazing catalyst for healing because it allows us to go beyond the intellectualization of the loss; and connects us to the healing wisdom within all of us. I don’t know who said this, but I love the definition of ritual as being “a safe harbour" to pull into and embrace the depth of our loss. As an IPLD, I have faith that the components of the grief ritual are being ingested into the psyche and subconscious...ritual actions allow one to feel it in their body; it’s a psycho-somatic process. This connection of body, mind and soul will help with healing. Well-done rituals stimulate all the senses and breed connection: touch & sight, the sound of the words spoken, smells, the energetic ethereal senses are stimulated, the experience of acknowledging life & death, and the continued soul connection with the baby. There is ritual acknowledgement of spirit, new beginnings, release and rebirth.
You might start exploring ritual for grief and remembrance by reading these books:
The Art of Ritual by Renee Beck
Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart by Alan D. Wolfelt
Entering the Healing Ground: Grief, Ritual, and the Soul of the World by Francis Weller
The Be Ceremonial App is an amazing resource for anyone holding space for grief, death, and dying. Having access to structured rituals at your fingertips is so helpful. Megan Sheldon is a creative Canadian expert on transitional rituals.
“Ritual is an acknowledgement of what was, what is, and what will be.” -- Megan Sheldon
Kelly Hurley is a HHA graduate and has an infant and pregnancy loss doula (IPLD) practice in British Columbia. You can learn more about her at https://www.withgracepregnancyinfantlossceremonies.com/