The Power Of Rituals To Heal The Grief of Covid-19

Updated: May 5, 2020

All of us are moving through a time of profound uncertainty, of grief and loss. Things will never be the same again. They will be different. For some, Covid-19 has brought unimaginable loss, for many acute trauma, others are still to process the impact on their lives.

Certainly our first responders will require mental health support way beyond the crisis. Our heroes must be supported and so too must YOU.

A focus must now be given to healing, to acknowledging what has happened, to recovery and to hope. Rituals provide a safe space to do just that and have been part pf the human psyche for centuries.

Rituals are an important way for people to find meaning when they suffer loss. Everyone is familiar with rituals. Perhaps you’ve performed them during holidays, in church, or even before sport's matches. You may have performed rituals to acknowledge important life changes—graduations, weddings, births, birthdays, retirements, and funerals.

The power of rituals lies in their symbolism. Consider the ritual of graduation. Walking across a stage and shaking someone’s hand is no big deal as an act in itself. We walk all over the place and shake people’s hands all the time or at least we all did until social distancing became the new norm.

But this act takes on special meaning when it’s performed at graduation, symbolizing an important transition, a right of passage.

Another symbolic ritual involves wine. Although drinking wine with dinner may be pleasant, the same activity takes on powerful meaning during certain religious services. The symbolism in these rituals can fill us with emotion, give us goosebumps, and punctuate the important events of our lives. Research even shows that some rituals facilitate the body’s release of endorphins.

But few people realize the power of creating their own rituals. An acquaintance of mine, Donald, was only 38 when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was a professional photographer, making most of his living snapping photographs at weddings. Nonetheless, he loved taking photos in a nearby nature preserve, where he could be found on his days off. Although he never shared these pictures with anyone, taking them was one of his great loves.

So, shortly after Donald was first hospitalized, his father decided to visit the nature preserve. He brought along an old, 35-mm camera and took photographs that he thought his son would enjoy. Donald loved them, and a ritual was established. Every time he entered the hospital, his father would visit the preserve and show him the pictures.

For Donald, this ritual was meaningful because it shared his great love of nature with his dad. For his father, it was meaningful, because it kept a piece of his son alive and well. Eventually, Donald passed away. To this day, however, his father visits the preserve four times a year, once for every season. There, he speaks to his son, takes a few pictures, and doesn’t show them to anyone.

Rituals are actions that symbolically connect us to something meaningful. They can be comforting, express feelings, bring about a sense of closure, or keep an important part of the past alive. When rituals are done to commemorate a loss, they honour both the person who is doing them and the person they’ve lost.

Although most people think of rituals as formal and even complex, creating a personal ritual can actually be simple. Here are four questions to help develop a ritual that will be personally meaningful for you:

What is the meaning of your ritual?

A good place to begin in developing a ritual is to determine what you’d like it to mean. Among virtually limitless meanings, rituals can be used to mark a life change, celebrate or commemorate an important memory, carry on an activity for a person who is no longer present, or connect us with living or deceased loved ones.

When and where will the ritual take place?

Although rituals frequently take place on important dates, such as birthdays or anniversaries, they can happen whenever and wherever it feels right. You may decide to do them only once or repeat them once a year or several times a year. Although churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious or spiritual places are common settings, rituals can take place anywhere.

For something like a healing ritual acknowledging the pain and suffering Covid-19 has caused it could be a livestreamed event with a neighbourhood component to reinforce connectedness and community.

Consider what settings might connect you to the meaning of your ritual. Identify a “sacred” space, in fact rituals have a way of bringing significance to almost any location.

Who will be present?

Rituals can involve other people or be performed alone. Consider whether or not having others present will enable you to connect more fully to the meaning of your ritual.

The important thing is the goals of the ritual. Sometimes, the ritual needs to involve another person. Other times, it can seem more meaningful to do it alone.

What will be done?

Reflect on what kinds of actions or activities will most connect you with the meaning of your ritual. These can require anywhere from seconds to hours, depending on what you feel works best. As mentioned previously, however, try not to get caught in the trap of thinking that rituals have to be complicated or lengthy. Some are, and some aren’t.

Formal rituals like funerals or memorial services are important for many people when they lose a loved one. But sometimes, the most meaningful rituals are those that are more personal and tailored only for you.

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