At the heart of ritual is relationship and reciprocity.
I am a ritualist and animist and one of my areas of healing focus is grieving. Because of these proclivities, I have been observing for many years how ritual healing has been taken up within modern wellness spheres, and specifically within the field of grief, bereavement, and nature therapy.
Living within a dominant culture that values and perpetuates hyper-individualism and stoic self-reliance (among many other things), means that many healing modalities in Western therapeutic fields of practice, from psychotherapy to nature-based healing to wellness coaching, are also born within, and greatly conditioned from, this context. Healing can become overly focused on a self-defined and self-designed endeavour.
Any google search on ‘healing grief rituals’ will populate many articles focused mainly on death and bereavement and suggesting an assortment of remembrance and release rituals including wearing your loved one’s clothes, writing a letter addressed to the deceased, meditation, journalling, burning candles and incense, working with symbols to 'activate' your healing, calm your mind, and heal your grief. Many will nod to inviting in the Sacred, however the focus is on personal healing resolution and a one-directional goal of support (to me).
Much academic research also focuses on personal bereavement rituals to support release of attachment, cutting ties, individuation after loss, and restoration of self. Just take this excerpt from a grief therapy study on rituals of letting go:
In rituals, bodily qualities and physical actions are particularly relevant in bringing emotion, thought and intention together so that a feeling of stepping out of the mundane and ordinary is experienced more deeply [Kavanagh 1990; Parkin 1992, Rando 1985, Turner 1967,]. The act of actively doing something can mitigate passive victimization following loss [Hoven et al., 2008].
Ritual here is seen to integrate an individuals' emotions, thoughts and intention, so that ultimately, they feel agency rather than victimized in their grief. The ritual is an act of self-help to attain “a feeling” that is conducive to healing integration. Some grief therapy rituals support continuing bonds with your loved one, a ‘theory’ developed by Ken Doka. As Terri Daniel writes in her thesis:
According to Doka, rather than seeing a funeral as a one-time activity, we should develop new and continued rituals over time throughout the mourning process, which can extend the therapeutic value of a funeral or memorial service. He also identifies various types of rituals that mark different milestones and serve different purposes, such as continuity, transition, reconciliation or affirmation in order to meet the specific needs of the griever.
Again however, the ritual is purely for therapeutic value of the griever, focused on their internal relationship to the memory of their loved one and their own needs, rather than including the deceased directly and their needs (more on this in Part 3: Ritual as Rite of Passage). The rituals are still self-oriented.
Similar within certain nature-based contexts, rituals of connection have focused on nature as a therapeutic tool that offers beneficial value to the person. Rituals center around what can nature do for me, what the benefits of forest bathing are for me, what nature offers to heal me? Nature is instrumentalized to support the therapeutic relationship between counsellor/practitioner and client. This is a starting point into re-connection, but again, a one-sided relational pathway. Eco-therapy is starting to take this one step further in a more relational direction:
What makes ecotherapy different from an attempt to “mine nature for its beneficial effects,” Chalquist explained “is that we have to give something back.” He tells students that if they want to experience the full value of ecotherapy, they can’t just go touch a tree; they need to come to care about that tree and help preserve it for future generations.
Let me be clear - all these examples I name above can be very supportive to our healing; I am not arguing against that. I have been on the receiving end of healing from similar invitations, and I personally love nature therapy, agree that we need to center our connection to the natural world more, and have learned a lot through different models within the nature-based field that support learning, growth, and choice. However, what is shared above are not rituals, at least not fully. They are intentional personal routines for self-care and therapeutic strategies for a person’s internal healing process to support their emotional and psychological integration, connection, and well-being.
Many of these healing and therapeutic practices are influenced by a dominant cultural value of transactional relating; what do I get from this in my healing journey? In the nature-based example, the psycho-therapeutic frame to nature connection doesn’t inherently extend, or teach about, the personhood of Forest, Tree, Moss, or the Spirit of a Place, and that we too are a part of this reciprocity of connection and have a place (and responsibility) to offer our generosity, care, and presence to them. The rituals of connection hasn't included the value inherent in being in relationship to ‘nature’, outside of needing something for oneself.
If we are not careful, the very healing rituals that are prescribed to stave off isolation and loneliness in any healing journey, instead deepen a sense of aloneness and disconnection. The rituals are one-sided and self-focused; they have been stripped of their relational essence. We do not receive the ritual's healing balm of knowing we matter inside a deeply relational community of beings, or within a relationship that continues with the deceased and supports their rite of passage of death. Rather, we have received an affirmation that we are moving forward in our healing. We may receive a sense of self-efficacy and agency that we can do something with our own pain, grief, and disconnection, which is an important part of healing. And yet, it is not the full story - something is still missing.
Ritual is deeply relational and inherently about reciprocity - reciprocity with Others, whether those others are friends, family, community, Spirit, ancestors, recently deceased, deities, plant ones, tree elders, animal spirits, the animate ecology, spirit of place and land, cosmic movements and beyond, that we are embedded within.
When ritual is held in its fullness of relational reciprocity, it takes us out of self-focus and instead right-sizes us in the belonging of things, which is inherently a healing experience of our wholeness and interdependence. It both minimizes our self-focus while in the same moment affirms our significance. In this way, our personal healing needs are met as part of the reciprocity. We may offer prayers, song, food, beauty, witnessing, and presence to ritually honour and relate to Others while at times also ritually asking for healing support, which might include offering our grief as love to Other. Our ongoing relationship is the focus, the central ritual intention, and from this personal healing is but one beneficial aspect.
In the fullness of ritual, we human people are reminded of our inherent worthiness as members of a broader community of animate beings and within cyclical living/dying story lines. Ritual-as-relationship is what reminds us we are not alone; that are held in the larger stories and ecology of inter-relationships that influence us and that we influence. We are reminded to extend our connection to Others who also need and value our presence, attunement and capacity to see and know them.
Ritual reminds us that we are always connected to, and changed by, a rich and diverse ecosystem of beings, all participating in the ongoing belonging and unfolding of life and death alongside one another. Our well-being is rooted in the reciprocity of this embeddedness.
My 9 week online course Belonging to the World - Relationship and Ritual for the Heart of Grief starts soon! October 4th, 2023 - enrolments are now open. I would love to have you join me in the practice of ritual as relationship and reciprocity.
Design for Rituals of Letting Go: An Embodiment Perspective on Disposal Practices Informed by Grief Therapy. Corina Sas, Lancaster University, Steve Whittaker, University of California at Santa Cruz, John Zimmerman, Carnegie Mellon University
Rituals and Ceremonies for Grieving: Turning Pain into Power. Terri Daniel, DMin, CT, CCTP, San Franciso Theological Seminary.
The Nature Cure by James Hamblin, article published in The Atlantic
Shauna Janz, MA is a teacher, mentor, and facilitator at the crossroads of grief, trauma, ritual and ancestral healing. She is the founder of Sacred Grief offering immersive online programs for folks interested in deepening their skills in these areas.
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