Loss is unavoidable on the human journey. Where there is loss, grief follows. Grief can be overwhelming due to the intensity of emotions involved. In the aftermath of a major loss, people often struggle to return to their routines in a way that honors and makes space for their bereavement.
Grief rituals offer a powerful means of working with and healing from loss that can be incorporated into daily life. Personalized grief rituals allow for greater flexibility, customization, and repetition. This article presents an easy-to-follow template for designing a grief ritual tailored to your particular loss. Carrying out such a ritual is an empowering and hands-on way of working with your grief.
A grief ritual may not be appropriate in some cases. Consult with a professional before conducting a grief ritual if you struggle with depression, suicidality, or other mental health issues, or if you feel ill-equipped to handle the intense emotions that may arise.
What is a Ritual?
Any event or activity with structure, intention, and an element of the sacred can be a ritual. Some examples include meditating each morning, singing “happy birthday” at a celebration, or planting and tending a memorial garden. Regardless of the content, rituals create a space to honor what matters most and to welcome insight, growth, and healing.
How Rituals Help with Grief
The English word “grief” derives from a Latin word that means “heavy,” “weighty,” and “burdensome.” Rituals help alleviate the burden of grief after a major loss. They do this by promoting acceptance of the loss, emotional expression, and a feeling of control.
Rituals also help maintain a bond with what has been lost and provide an opportunity for reflecting on how to go forward. Carrying out a ritual connects a person to whatever they consider sacred, be it a higher power, a state of consciousness, or their most cherished values.
|Grief Ritual Benefits|
|✔ Acceptance of loss||✔ Sense of control|
|✔ Processing of emotions||✔ Creation of meaning|
|✔ Maintenance of bond with deceased||✔ Comforting routine|
|✔ Expression of beliefs & values||✔ Healing, growth, & insight|
Adopting a Personal Grief Ritual
To be effective, a grief ritual should be tailored to your particular loss, belief system, and immediate environment. Below are steps you can follow to design a grief ritual that is right for your situation. Feel free to make adjustments based on your culture, setting, and religious or spiritual beliefs.
- Choose a meaningful object
- Make it sacred
- Incorporate movement
- Interact with chosen object
- Create closure and repeat
Grief Ritual Steps
Choose a Meaningful Object
Grief rituals benefit from incorporating a meaningful physical object. If possible, select an object with a connection to your loss. If you are grieving the loss of a loved one or relationship, this might be a cherished piece of jewelry, an article of clothing they wore, a gift they gave you, a letter they wrote, or a photograph.
If your loss does not involve a person, you may still be able to find an object related to the loss. For example, if you are grieving the end of a job, you could choose an object from that role—a pen, ID card, uniform, or business card. If you are unable to think of an object, select something with symbolic value from the natural environment—a rock, flower, seashell, or feather.
Make it Sacred
Rituals should have an element of sacredness to distinguish them from mundane activities, such as getting dressed, cleaning, or driving to work. Lighting a candle, visiting a special place, or reciting a prayer, mantra, or intention are all good options for marking the start and conclusion of your ritual and emphasizing its sacredness.
Rituals should also include steps performed in a certain order. This provides a structure that guides you through the ritual, which can be helpful if you are overwhelmed with emotion.
Research suggests that connecting with your body can help with expressing and processing difficult emotions, which is one of the most important benefits of a grief ritual. Incorporating movement into your grief ritual can be an effective way to do this.
A walk in nature—even if just around the block or in a park—can serve this function. If you are mourning the loss of a person, you might walk in a place that reminds you of them. Some find it meaningful to visit the site where their loved one died or where their remains are located.
If it is not possible to go for a walk, consider whether there are other ways to use movement in your ritual. For example, you could dance to a song that speaks to your loss. If you live near water where it is safe to swim, you could immerse yourself or tread water as part of your ritual.
Interact with Chosen Object
Rather than just having an object present, grief experts recommend using the object in some way. This symbolizes moving the pain of grief to a place where it can be worked with and transformed.
For example, if you wrote a letter expressing your feelings about a relationship that ended, you could shred and bury it as a way of releasing your emotions. If you chose a rock as your object, imagine your anger or guilt being absorbed into it, and then drop the rock into deep water as a way of letting go of what burdens you. If your object is a feather, place it in a stream, and watch as it slowly fades from view. Take adequate time to feel and express any emotions that come up in your grief ritual.
Another option is to create a small altar somewhere in your home. Place your chosen object on the altar and treat it as a sacred space where you can regularly meditate, pray, or sit in quiet contemplation.
Create Closure & Repeat
After performing your ritual, create a sense of closure before returning to your day. Some good options are reciting a mantra, expressing an intention, praying, meditating, or extinguishing a candle you lit to begin the ritual. This helps mark the end of your ritual and the return to your normal activities.
Rituals often increase in power and significance when repeated. If your ritual is elaborate or time-consuming, it may make sense to repeat it on an occasional basis, such as on the anniversary of the loss. But simpler rituals can often be integrated into your daily life. For example, you could light a candle and meditate or pray each morning to start your day. Or you could go on a short walk in the evenings as a way of reflecting on your loss. Experiment with what works best for you.
Grief Rituals in Action
Below are examples of how two people designed effective grief rituals using the previously outlined steps:
End of a Relationship
Daniel is struggling in the months following his divorce. He is devastated by the end of his marriage, but also angry and hurt, especially about his ex-wife's affair. Here’s how Daniel created a ritual to work with his grief:
|Choose a meaningful object||Daniel decides to write a letter to his ex-wife expressing his anger and other emotions.|
|Make it sacred||Daniel finds a quiet place to write the letter and lights a candle to mark the start of his ritual.|
|Incorporate movement||Daniel walks to an empty field near his house. He then digs a hole in the ground.|
|Interact with chosen object||Daniel reads the letter aloud, expresses his emotions, shreds the letter, and places the many pieces into the hole.|
|Create closure & repeat||Daniel plants a sapling in the hole with the shredded letter, returns home, and decides to revisit the site in a month.|
Death of a Loved One
Marisa is heartbroken after losing her older sister, Gabriela. In addition to mourning her sister’s passing, Marisa is sad that she did not get a chance to say goodbye. This is how Marisa designed and carried out a ritual to aid her grief process:
|Choose a meaningful object||On one of her walks, Marisa finds a colorful feather, which reminds her of her sister’s love of birds.|
|Make it sacred||Marisa decides to carry out her ritual at a nearby stream in a beautiful setting that feels special to her.|
|Incorporate movement||Marisa walks through the woods to the stream and finds a quiet spot on its banks.|
|Interact with chosen object||Marisa says goodbye to her sister and wishes her spirit well. She then gently releases the feather into the stream.|
|Create closure & repeat||After the feather disappears into the distance, Marisa returns home, resolving to revisit the ritual site every weekend.|
Your grief ritual can and should look different from these examples, as it will be unique to your loss, beliefs, and preferences. Be creative as you decide how to incorporate the elements mentioned in the article.
Remember to include each of the outlined steps in whatever ritual you choose: Choose a meaningful object, make it sacred, incorporate movement, interact with chosen object, and create closure and repeat.
While not a cure for loss, carrying out a well-designed personal grief ritual has many potential benefits, such as helping you accept the loss, process your emotions, have a sense of control, and maintain your bond with the deceased, among others. Repeating your ritual and making it part of your routine can increase these benefits and give meaning and structure to your life.
Learn more about grief:
More Grief Education
1. Arslan, B. S., & Buldukoglu, K. (2021). Grief rituals and grief reactions of bereaved individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic. Omega—Journal of Death and Dying, 0(0), 1-15.
2. Castle, J., & Phillips, W. L. (2003). Grief rituals: Aspects that facilitate adjustment to bereavement. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 8(1), 41–71.
3. Daniel, T. (2021). Adding a new dimension to grief counseling: Creative personal ritual as a therapeutic tool for loss, trauma and transition. Omega—Journal of Death and Dying, 0(0), 1-14.
4. Gamba, F. (2018). Coping with loss: Mapping digital rituals for the expression of grief. Health Communication, 33(1), 78–84.
5. Gilbert, R. B. (2013). Techniques of grief therapy: Creative practices for counseling the bereaved. Illness crisis and loss, 21(1), 84–85.
6. Mathew, L. E. (2021). Braiding western and eastern cultural rituals in bereavement: An autoethnography of healing the pain of prolonged grief. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 49(6), 791-803.
7. Rando, T. A. (1985). Creating therapeutic rituals in the psychotherapy of the bereaved. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 22(2), 236–240.
8. Sas, C., & Coman, A. (2016). Designing personal grief rituals: An analysis of symbolic objects and actions. Death Studies, 40(9), 558–569.
9. Sas, C., Whittaker, S., & Zimmerman, J. (2016). Design for rituals of letting go: An embodiment perspective on disposal practices informed by grief therapy. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 23(4), 1–37.
10. Wojtkowiak, J., Lind, J., & Smid, G. E. (2021). Ritual in therapy for prolonged grief: A scoping review of ritual elements in evidence-informed grief interventions. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11, 1-13.