Bereavement Rituals: Two Stories of Grief and Remembrance

Annual rituals are wonderful ways to honor lost loved ones

Immediately following the loss of a loved one, reminders may be overwhelming. A place, a song, a phrase may suddenly open emotional flood gates, bringing intense feelings of loss, emptiness, sorrow or despair. People deal with grief and remembrance in unique ways and in their own time. There is no set way forward as crisis, shock, hope, pain, loneliness, anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance bleed into, loop around, spiral, and give way to one another. Bereavement rituals can be used to mourn, memorialize, or celebrate the lives of lost loved ones. There is no one “right” or “best” way, or day, to honor someone’s memory.

Grief doesn’t hit us in tidy phases and stages, nor is it something that we forget and move on from; it is an individual process that has a momentum of its own, and the work involves finding ways of coping with our fear and pain, and also adjusting to this new version of ourselves, our “new normal.”

Julia Samuel
Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving

People may choose to dedicate time daily, weekly, monthly, or annually to remembrance. Some rituals take minutes, such as lighting a candle for a loved one, saying a prayer before bed, or glancing up at their picture at the end of a work day. Others, like revisiting each stop from a trip you took to Europe, may take weeks. It’s not uncommon to recognize loved ones on the day they died, their birthday, an anniversary, or another day that held special significance.

Below are the stories of two people who were willing to share their experiences with losing of a loved one. They start by sharing their pain and grief, then describe bereavement rituals they perform now, in remembrance of that person.

A Quiet, Private Loss

Some people would argue I never lost a child. They’d feel that since he or she was “unborn” at the time of death, the loss didn’t count. To them I couldn’t have lost my child because no child existed.

The truth is we all have different ideas about when a person begins to exist. Does a child “become” when they’re just a thought, an idea, or a goal we’re striving toward? Do we exist the moment we’re conceived? How about the day after? Or, the day after that? Some cultures believe we come into existence the day we’re given a name. This creates identify, self, personhood. Unfortunately, my child had no name.

Many mothers I know say their baby became “real” to them the first time they heard its heartbeat, or felt that first kick. Others say they started seeing themselves as mothers while they were showing sonogram photos to family, friends, and colleagues.

My child became “real” to me in a public restroom. There I was, my watch in one hand, a pregnancy test in the other. In truth, I knew what the test was going to tell me. But, I needed the evidence to convince someone else.

If you haven’t had a miscarriage, you might be blind to the utter lack of acknowledgement that accompanies it. I grieved, like anyone who has experienced a great loss, but I did it alone. There were no flowers. No ceremony was held. It was just me and my suffering. I didn’t want to eat, get out of bed, or move on with life. Because I didn’t tell my boss what had happened, I had to go back after three days. As Alisa Volkman explains so eloquently in her TED Talk, it was an invisible loss.

I felt like I happened upon this secret society of women that I now was a part of, which was reassuring and also really concerning. And I think, miscarriage is an invisible loss. There’s not really a lot of community support around it. There’s really no ceremony, rituals, or rites. And I think, with a death, you have a funeral, you celebrate the life, and there’s a lot of community support, and it’s something women don’t have with miscarriage. 

Let’s Talk Parenting Taboos
TEDWomen, 2010

A few people told me they were sorry for my loss, but most people didn’t. In their defense, they didn’t know I was pregnant. I hadn’t made “the big announcement” yet. I’d decided not to tell anyone until I knew if I was having a boy or a girl. Instead of a joyous surprize, all I had to offer people was a shell of my former self filled with a huge, and growing, empty void. At the time, it was one I was fairly sure I’d never be able to fill.

Life Keeps Moving

I would say I’ve “moved on” in the sense that I’m living my life again. I have energy, now. For years, I felt like a zombie much of the time. More accurately, I was thankful when I felt nothing, because when I did feel something, what I felt was my heart being ripped out.

A good friend offered some unsolicited advice on day. She suggested that I create a bereavement ritual, a reminder. She said it would help me with remembrance. In that moment, I felt unseen, unloved, and distant. I may have laughed. Couldn’t she see I had no need for “remembrance assistance” at all. What I desperately needed was a way to move on, to forget. Perhaps what I needed was “selective amnesia assistance.” The couple of glasses of wine I was having each night weren’t really cutting it.

Shifting Perspectives

I don’t know when, but one day I was on a bench in a park, reading a book. When I looked up, I saw a butterfly. I smiled, something I couldn’t believe my lips remembered how to do. The movement was foreign, my whole face felt contorted. For a brief moment, my smile was accompanied by happiness. Then, suddenly, my whole body was flooded with guilt. It washed across me like a tsunami. I sat there, wondering what kind of monster I was. How dare I feel joy! How dare I feel any positive emotion!

That night, while I was lying in bed, my perspective shifted. I was grieving my personal loss, but also all of the amazing things my child would never experience. I was mourning the loss of my child’s life, of something unbelievably precious, while at the same time squandering my own. I was a hypocrite!

The book I’d started that day helped me move forward as well, mostly by mending my relationship with my husband.

We do not “get over” a death. We learn to carry the grief and integrate the loss in our lives. In our hearts, we carry those who have died. We grieve and we love. We remember.

Nathalie Himmelrich
Grieving Parents: Surviving Loss as a Couple

Mourning Rituals Held at Special Spaces

Visiting a person’s final resting place is perhaps the most common bereavement ritual. As the anniversary of my child’s death approached, I was lost as to what to do to “mark the occasion.” I found myself being envious whenever I saw a scene of someone visiting a loved one’s grave on television or in a movie. I wanted what they had. Why should I be robbed of that way to remember, to memorialize my child? But my lost loved one no longer existed in physical space. I considered purchasing a plot and stone. In the end, that didn’t feel like the best solution.

I remember sitting on the porch for hours, one day, trying to come up with alternatives to visiting a grave site that might comfort me. My child had spent his or her entire life inside my belly. When I was grieving, I struggled with my stomach. It was too close. It was right there, I couldn’t get away from it. It served as a constant and haunting reminder of what could’ve been and what I’d lost. I wanted it to go away!

Too Close, Too Far

Once I was ready, and wanted to remember, my belly was still too close. I needed to set time aside and actually travel somewhere. It was important to me that I leave day to day-to-day activities, ordinary life, behind when I wanted to honor and memorialize my child. I had to go somewhere different and special to mark the occasion. Preferably, this would be somewhere I’d ONLY go on days dedicated to my child’s memory.

I struggled with where to hold a bereavement ritual because the only place I associated with my loved one was inside me
I struggled with where to hold a bereavement ritual because the place I associated with my child was inside me

It took me a long time to find a place, outside my body, where I felt a strong connection to my lost child. I knew the place I selected needed to be quiet, somewhere I could sit in silence, somewhere I could cry and reflect. That definitely ruled out the emergency room where I’d gone that fateful December day. Even if it had been quiet, the hospital most likely wouldn’t have appreciated my leaving flowers and talking to myself in their waiting room. Yet I knew deep down inside, I needed a place to go, that the space itself was crucial for me.

A Memorial Bench for Bereavement Rituals

When someone dies in an automobile crash, memorials are usually right where the tragedy occured. In part, as a reminder to take a corner slowly or call a cab when out drinking. I was driving past one such reminder when it hit me, I could go to where my miscarriage had begun, to perform acts of remembrance.

I’d started bleeding while I was walking on a trail near my house. It was there, looking down at my jeans, that I suspected my worst fear was about to become reality. It was there that the dread had set in. I’d been dodging that feeling, possibly unconsciously, ever since.

For three years after my epiphany, every December 2nd, I went back to that spot and left flowers. On the fourth year, while reminiscing the “butterfly incident,” I decided I would dedicate a bench to my lost child, and have it put at that spot on the trail.

Picking the perfect bench was easy. Finding the perfect quote for the inscription was a little harder, although not impossible. But, the lack of a name for the “in memory of” part of the inscription was a major problem and, quite frankly, had always been a sore spot. So, I named my child Sam. I thoroughly enjoy the time I spend sitting on Sam’s bench. I read. I remember. I’m flooded with love. I no longer go once a year. You can find me there spending time with Sam each Saturday morning, all year round, no matter the weather.

Bereavement rituals are an important part of both remembrance and healing
Bereavement rituals are an important part of both remembrance and healing

In Remembrance of Rachel

We were together earlier that day. She was so happy… I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t believe it. Rachel had NOT taken her own life!

Anger, Denial, and More Anger

I went from denial to anger and back to denial, back to anger, over and over again. Weren’t there supposed to be more stages in the grieving process? Hands down, her funeral was the worst part. I needed to hear something enlightening, inspiring, or uplifting. Instead, the bastard said that she’d committed an unforgivable sin. He said she was in hell. Then, he used the remainder of the service to warn others not to take their lives. Disgusted, I skipped the burial.

For many years, I replayed our final conversation over and over in my head. Rachel said she’d decided to go back to college. I tried to remember if she mentioned a specific degree, but couldn’t. She’d said, “The new rental house is fabulous. Maybe I’ll buy it someday.” She’d eluded to a new love interest in her life.

Everything we talked about was about her future. Did she know then that she had no intention of going into the future? I had a million questions and there was no one who could provide any answers. Or at least not any satisfactory answers, none I was willing to accept.

Tainted Remembrance

A decade after Rachel died, I found myself telling someone about her horrific funeral over a cup of coffee. I’d lost loved ones since she died. I felt more settled, at peace with what had happened to them. For some reason, my stomach only turned when I thought of Rachel. I didn’t want it to. I wanted to think of the good times, to remember our friendship, but the way her life ended had completely tarnished my memory of her.

Rachel had become just two things to me – suppressed anger and disbelief.

Could a Bereavement Ritual Restore Positive Memories?

My grandmother explained to me that remembrance can be a warm and comforting experience before death, at the time of death, and after death. She and I actually did many remembrance rituals before she passed. Sometimes, we would light a candle and talk about what we believed happened to someone as they died. We had a meal to celebrate the signing of her living will. We went together to pick out her burial plot, weighing the benefits and drawbacks of the various locations in the cemetery. She said that no matter when she died, she wanted to be memorialized as 30. We looked through her photo albums from that decade to find the best pictures for her service. I found it all strange at first, but looking back, it prepared me for what was ahead. She made sure I knew she felt she had lived a full, happy life. My grandmother said goodbye, many times, in many ways.

Rachel died suddenly, unexpectedly, and without saying goodbye. If she knew what she was going to do when she saw me that day, why not? I didn’t want to admit the most likely answer. I would have tried to stop her. For whatever reason, she’d wanted to die. Her mind was made up. Maybe. Unfortunately, the deceased don’t clear things up.

Remembrance as a Shared Experience

I decided I wanted to be around others who understood what I was feeling. There’s a non-profit organization called SAVE [Suicide Awareness Voices of Education]. In addition to support groups, they help people create memorial funds in honor of lost loved ones, and host an Annual Suicide Awareness Memorial Event, in Minnesota.

Since I can’t go to Minnesota every year, I started my own annual memorial tradition with two good friends who’ve also lost someone they love to suicide. When we get together for our bereavement rituals, we each bring a picture in memory of our loved one.

We talk, drink, laugh, and cry. When we retell our “how I met them” stories, the others pretend they’re hearing them for the first time.

Beyond Ritual

Once I had regained the ability to remember Rachel as the person she was, not how she died, I wanted to do more to help others. Honestly, although I was so upset that there was “no warning,” it turned out I really had no idea what the signs of suicide were, or how someone should respond if they notice one. I believe the best ways to honor Rachel’s memory is to raise awareness.

I carry cards in my wallet with the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. In case you’re curious, it’s: 800-273-8255. When I see someone who looks scared, alone, or depressed, I ask if they’re okay. I know nothing I do will bring Rachel back. But perhaps something I do will save someone else from a similar fate.

Remembrance rituals are often different based on our relationship to lost loved ones
Some have remembrance rituals for each loved one who passes, others use one ritual to honor everyone they’ve lost

Creating Bereavement Rituals Can Be Healing

We’ll all experience loss during our lives. Again, people process grief in their own ways, in their own time. One person may light a candle or release rose pedals downstream. Another might eat a loved one’s favorite food, sing their favorite song, or engage in their favorite activity.

Some write a letter to everyone they’ve lost, once a year, others may wear a piece of jewelry, every day, in someone’s honor. Remembrance may come in the form of sharing stories in a support group for those who have lost a child, sibling, parent, or an intimate partner.

When we take the time to mourn, honor, and perform bereavement rituals in remembrance of those who’ve touched our lives, we can move forward together.

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Chris Elle Dove is the author of Gabby Makes a Friend, and the upcoming picture book, Sadie's Sea Turtle. She's been teaching sociology courses at community colleges since 2005. Her hobbies include meditation, cooking, hiking, and running. Chris is the proud mother of two beautiful, adult children and one German Shepherd.

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