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How rituals help us navigate grief

Rituals are an integral part of all our lives – even if we don’t realise it. They can be anything you do regularly as a family, such as the way you celebrate Christmas. Perhaps you always attend midnight mass as a family the night before or traditionally have smoked salmon for breakfast?

Rituals can even be something silly. You might all have a pie from a particular kiosk before a football match or you might all sing the same funny song in the car enroute to your holiday destination.

Here in Crowborough, many families share rituals. When September comes along, we clear our diaries for the Crowborough Carnival. If you’ve lived in the town for a while, then it’s something which has no doubt been part of your life for many years. Stephen from Tester & Jones has photos of his Mum when she was the Carnival princess and now he always makes a point of going along. On Carnival day, your family might stand in the same position every year to watch the procession go past and that’s a ritual.

Shared rituals help to give us a sense of identity, security and belonging from an early age. This is particularly important when times are difficult or uncertain. They can offer something to look forward to and an assurance that, whatever is going, some things never change.

Rituals are even more important during times of grief. We know many of the families we support find a sense of comfort in the rituals which happen around funerals, in the same way they do around other major life events, such as weddings and christenings.

If you watched the Queen’s funeral it was a mixture of being extraordinary and yet intensely familiar. During the service from Windsor, the BBC presenter Kirsty Young said: “Here we see the ritualising of grief – which helps us to make sense of a very difficult situation.”

Funerals have many rituals – whether it’s the way the coffin is brought to the chapel or simply the way everyone sits or stands at the same time.

In a recent episode of the podcast Griefcast (25 January 2023), the host Cariad Lloyd was talking to the comedian Tom Allen, whose father died in 2021. He said he wasn’t religious but explained: “I found the church service very moving and I liked the way it felt the church held us a bit. I absolutely got it – all those funeral rites and structures that have been done like that for centuries.”

Psychologists believe that these rituals help us in times of ‘chaos and disorder’. Academic Jonathan Jong said: “Despite this wide diversity of practice, it seems our death rituals serve the same psychological functions: to make us feel less helpless in the face of our sorrow and terror.”

The face of funerals is changing though and we’ve noticed that while our families usually want to mark the passing of their loved one with a service, it can be different when we talk to individuals about plans for their own funerals. We are hearing more and more that people don’t want a ‘fuss’ made. While this is generally well intentioned, it’s important to remember that rituals are part of life, they make us feel ‘safe’ and give us routine, something to focus on and some comfort.

Embracing the rituals associated with a funeral and of a death itself are an important way of saying goodbye to the person you love and begin the long process of rebuilding your life.

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