Imagine a mother and daughter spending a snowy winter break baking their favorite cookies, cakes, and other delicious desserts.
In the warmth of the kitchen, the mother — Mrs. Thompson — teaches her little daughter — Madison — her tips and secrets for baking, a tradition that Mrs. Thompson learned from her own mother. They continue this little winter ritual each year, writing down their favorite recipes together in a book, sharing stories and warm cookies.
But by Madison’s 16th birthday, the winter tradition stops. Her mother passes away from cancer unexpectedly. For the next few years, especially during winter, Madison avoids the kitchen, the baking, and the recipes that she shared so fondly with her mother.
It isn’t until her 25th birthday, one winter day, that she realizes she needs to find these recipes. She goes through her mother’s things, frantically trying to find their collection of recipes and baking tips. She realizes the importance of them and the connection they had with her mother. Slowly, she finds herself back in the kitchen, mourning her mother and celebrating her life by recreating the recipes that brought them together.
Now, 20 years later, Madison continues the little winter ritual she had with her mother. Each winter she’s teaching her children the recipes, baking tips, and creating the same shared connection that she had with her mother each winter.
Grief and Coping
Grief is impossible to define because it’s unpredictable. It’s a unique experience for everyone. But psychologists have noticed something peculiar about grief — they’ve found that in the face of grief, there are many who remain resilient.
In fact, George Bonanno, author of The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss, found that many of us are already equipped to deal with losses in a healthy and effective way.
But what’s the secret to so many people’s resiliency in the face of loss? The answer could be in the rituals.
A study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that those who are more resilient and overcome grief quickly all have something in common — a ritual.
The study notes that “Rituals of mourning in the face of loss — from the death of loved ones to the end of meaningful relationships to losses in wars and competitions — are ubiquitous across time and cultures.”
The study broke people into two groups, those with rituals and those without. In both groups, they were asked to recall a significant loss in their lives. One group also was asked to write about a ritual that they used to help cope, while the other was not.
The study found that those who wrote and participated in rituals reported feeling less sad, depressed, powerless, and had more positive emotions and feelings of hope than those who didn’t recall any rituals.
Some examples of the rituals people mentioned in the study include:
“I used to play the song by Natalie Cole “I miss you like crazy” and cry every time I heard it and thought of my mom.”
“I washed his car every week as he used to do.”
“I hadn’t gone back to her house in fifteen years. And in these fifteen years, I have been going to hairdressers to cut my hair every first Saturday of the month as we used to do together.”
“The ritual involved sitting shiva for a week, being in what I term “major sloshim” for thirty days, and being in mourning for a year. On the anniversary of her death (7 Adar-Hebrew calendar), I say Mourners Kaddish and El Malei Rachamim (Memorial Prayer) and light a yarzheit candle. That date was a week ago. She died 21 years ago. I will do this until I die.”
The study concludes that “Although the specific rituals used to cope with losses vary widely from culture to culture — and indeed our participants reported engaging in a wide variety of rituals themselves — our results suggest that a common psychological mechanism both underlies these different rituals and explains their effectiveness. Engaging in rituals mitigates grief by restoring the feelings of control that are impaired by both life-changing (the death of loved ones)…”
Read a full overview of the Harvard study here.
The Importance of Rituals
Rituals can be public, such as our funeral and memorial traditions. Or they can be private — unique little ways we can reconnect with the memories of our loved one.
But it explains why we have rituals in the first place. Not only here in America, but around the world. Rituals and tradition are an important aspect of life. Couples have rituals, families have them, we even have our own daily routines and rituals.
In our everyday life, rituals help connect us to something larger than ourselves. They’re part of a shared bond. And in death, they do the same. Mourning rituals help us heal, help us cope, and help connect us to our past in a way that’s comforting.