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Creating Authentic Rituals During the Journey of Life

Key insights on best practices and how to form a personalized ritual 

There comes a time in just about everybody’s life when we search for the meaning behind the events that have shaped us. It seems that as we age, ritual and tradition are proving to be a valuable means to note life changing events and to mark and honor these joyful, silly, difficult, and heartbreaking episodes in our lives. Ritual helps us define our experience.

The Need for Ritual

In a conversation with a friend the other day, we wandered into the deep dark forest of how to approach and make peace with life changing events. We found some direction when we began to discuss the place of ritual in our lives. Neither of us is particularly religious, and we don’t find comfort in institutionalized ceremony or ritual. The spark of comfort does not appear for us when in the presence of what has become for us, institutionalized smoke and mirrors.

We both felt we were at a loss when it came to big life changes. For her, it is was the lack of direction from the Pastor at her father’s funeral and the missed opportunity to fully express the sense of loss of a very special man. For me, it was not understanding that I could, nor understood how to, bring ritual to the bedside when my mother died. I wanted to do something but did not feel that I had the ‘permission’ from the institution or family members.

In both cases we were caught in this chasm between grief, inexperience, and the false notion that there is a correct way to deal with these experiences. We didn’t have the luxury of a past institutional answer that could have guided us through these moments of emotional and spiritual uncertainty. There was nothing to fill in where we fell short. We were unprepared to face the most certain of events that a person faces: the death of a loved one.

Increasingly, we need a sort of guidance that used to fall under the purview of religious institutions. This void appears for many and what to do about it falls increasingly in our own lap. Unless we have a socially active religious or spiritual life we tend to fall short when it comes to embracing the brilliance of the ritual.

Creating Your Authentic Ritual

The good news is that we can create our own rituals. With a little introspection, conversation, and thought, we can come up with nurturing and meaningful rituals that can guide us through the watershed moments in life.

The thing is to make ritual your own. There are many rituals and traditions for older adults and younger adults to create within their lifetime. Whether it is for grieving or celebrating menopause, retirement, moving from one place to another, closing a home and downsizing to a smaller space, or the loss of someone who you love, these are perfect reasons to take the time to get quiet and to consider what would be helpful in marking the occasion. What would honor the person, the place, or the event? Taking the time to slow down and acknowledge the change takes the event from something to be gotten through, to something that nurtures the heart and validates our experience.

We may find that lighting a candle, singing a song, writing, reading, sharing memories, gathering flower petals to create a mandala, taking pictures, making an altar, sitting down to a special meal and raising a glass of wine, these activities along with many others can provide the quality and warmth of a welcomed ritual. Ritual can be personal, and it can be communal. We can privately create ritual that has us make peace with an event that we don’t feel comfortable sharing with another. We can bring our family together and design a ritual that honors a loved one in a way that fully acknowledges their place in our lives.

And there are events that are not necessarily attached to life changing events and yet over time take on the quality of ritual. Looking back, my favorite was at least once a week having coffee and cake with my mother at a café or at home. We would ritualistically have a conversation about the sacred quality of a beautifully baked cake or pastry, sheepishly put more than a dollop of whipped cream on our cake or in our coffee, and then gently meander into conversations about the past. I would listen to her story and for a bit, feel like we were honoring the ancestors and connecting with one another. I think of these times as ritualistic and I deeply value these memories. To this day I embrace moments that capture that feeling of communing over a shared meal and meaningful conversation.

Religious or spiritual beliefs can also help provide a source of great solace when going through life’s ups and downs, like the loss of a loved one or the birth of a grandchild. Whether setting up an altar inside your home, gathering at the cemetery once a year, christening a newborn baby, or praying around the rosary, religious practices can help lend a larger meaning to a loved one’s life and death. As reflected in Harvard Medical School’s recent report Coping with Grief and Loss, “believing your loved one helps guide you in this world or that you will be reunited in another place after your own death can help you continue to feel connected with the person.” 1

Think of what brings you peace. Think of how you best connect with others. How might these thoughts provide seedlings of ritual for you? You may even be surprised to discover that you have a ritual or two in your pocket that will see you and yours through a difficult change or loss.
Whether it is to acknowledge a new phase in life, a loss, or to simply celebrate what is right in front of you. Looking for and embracing rituals in our lives acknowledges what is difficult, precious, and sacred to our human experience. Ritual is a regal sort of pause button that can comfort us and guide us when we might otherwise feel alone and lost. Try it.