As a long-time bereavement counselor I have had the privilege of working alongside clients whose grieving is both complicated and intense. Even as we together tease out the knots and kinks that make relationships tangled and messy, we also focus on the beauty, the memories, and the pain. Whether it is the individual flow of mourning or grief that is heightened by society’s focus on anniversaries or holidays, using rituals and ceremonies to move through the grief is something I encourage all therapists – and clients – to be open to.
What causes us to tear up over a favorite song or poem that reminds us of our loved one? Our body provides us with a natural healing outlet for our grief when we are confronted with memories that trigger our emotions. Not everyone sheds tears easily or willingly after a loss, but the process of grieving can allow us the opportunity to work through this physical pain.
What can we do to encourage our own healing in way that is both respectful of the death and mindful of our life? Memorials and rituals are excellent ways to personalize the life of the person who has died. While many traditions encourage the sending of flowers or food to the bereaved family immediately after the death, there are other, longer-term gifts, memorials, or rituals that can carry forward the meaningful life that is no longer on this earth.
In our Western culture, many have found solace in placing a tombstone where they can visit the deceased on a regular basis. We have also begun seeing additional options for creating a living memorial. Purchasing park benches, planting trees, buying a brick at a museum walkway, making donations to a cause that inspired your loved one are all options that are lasting reminders. But beyond the public shows of support, there are smaller daily or weekly things that can help keep the conversation open in your heart. Finding a place or creating a time for “sacred space” is a way of elevating the emptiness to a different level within your consciousness.
Individualizing the loss
Consider a theme that resonates with you and the person who is gone: nature, sports, travel, music, food. Think about how you remember that person. Create a process or memorial that embodies that idea. Spend some time thinking about what feels authentic and what you feel comfortable with. Begin your journey when you feel ready.
Perhaps nature is a theme. Collect small rocks from your hikes or nature walks that you keep in a spot in the garden or in a glass jar. Allow yourself the freedom to know your loved one was with you as you enjoyed nature and that you are respecting his or her presence by bringing it home.
Hobbies can offer us a way to connect. Be mindful of the time you spend allowing your emotions to be present while you garden, bowl, or cook. Make a decision to incorporate your loved one in the process – cook his favorite meal once a month, print her name on your bowling bag or plant their special flowers annually.
If you are so inclined, take on an activity that you dedicate to do as an internal connection with your loved one. Take an art class, begin blogging, volunteer to read in an elementary school. Embrace the feeling of doing the activity together in your heart.
Meditate or spend a portion of time each day in a safe spot for you to grieve and remember. Read a favorite poem, look at photos, or play a special song and let yourself cry or laugh.
What I have found is most effective in soothing the grief is to work with clients to discover what makes them connect with the soul of their loved one. It matters not at all that others don’t “get” it – it can be an inside joke. One woman felt comforted going to the golf course where her father used to play; another donated her husband’s clothes to a shelter where he had volunteered; another family whose young child died collected donations to enhance the playground at his school. And for those whose memories were bitter, I’ve suggested planting herbs or vegetables whose sharp quality can ultimately become something valuable. Making meaning of their life and honoring that which feels good and familiar is the key.
Grief and the (many) holidays
Being in a vulnerable state during the holidays can cause anxiety and depression. While those around you are celebrating and enjoying what they have, you may be feeling the loss of what you no longer have. The rule for observing a holiday is: trust your gut. If you don’t feel able or celebrate with others, don’t – you are allowed to say NO. Change it up. Have Thanksgiving with a neighbor, go away for the week, volunteer at a shelter for Christmas, have another family member host the Easter or Passover dinner.
While seeing the trappings of public holidays can cause pain, there are other more personal observances that no one may be aware of or choose to remember, and the same principle of ritual can help. Whether you share these moments with others who can support you or you gain strength from the intimacy of privately remembering, know that your journey is unique and unless your activities are taking you out of living, you should feel comfort in your rituals.
Create a special memorial cup that celebrates your loved one, and use it only on holidays, anniversaries or birthdays.
Offer a toast or a blessing or a prayer with those you love.
Visit the gravesite or a spot sacred to you in the weeks prior to a remembrance date.
Buy an ornament or decoration that acknowledges the loss and display it .
Wear an item of clothing or jewelry that brings to mind your loved one; keeping a physical reminder can be comforting.
Buy or make a card and write loving thoughts on an anniversary; keep it as long as you wish.
Tia Amdurer, LPC, NCC, has her private practice, Heartfelt Healing Counseling, in Lakewood, CO, where works with individuals healing from grief, loss, abuse, low self-esteem and family of origin issues. She is the author of Take My Hand: The Caregiver’s Journey (www.TakeMyHandJourney.com ). www.HeartfeltHealingCounseling.com