altar with bread and candles
August 14, 2023

Honoring Memory: eight ways to create meaningful rituals

By Amanda Constable

One of the six needs of mourning, according to death educator and grief counselor Dr. Alan Wolfelt, is to remember the person who died. Remembering can take on many helpful forms, including rituals. Dr. Wolfelt describes a mourning ritual as a “symbolic activity that helps us, together with our families and friends, express our deepest thoughts and feelings about life’s most important events.”

Rituals help ease the pain and burden of grief through our senses, thoughts, and feelings. They do not have to involve many people or formal, traditional methods. Rituals can be whatever practices are most helpful and meaningful for those engaging in them. They can be simple or elaborate, and they can include creating or using items that belonged to the person who died. They can be spiritual, religious, or completely original. Below are eight rituals that can be helpful in remembering a loved one who has died.

  1. Cook the loved one’s favorite meal
    This allows a family or group of friends to get together and connect in a way that has proven to bring people together and encourage connection and intimate conversation. A favorite meal of the person who died can help open conversation around other things the person liked, who the person was, what is missed about the person, and a general sharing of memories. While a simple ritual, this can open new conversations through different senses including taste and smell which can evoke some very strong memories. Some families and friends will leave an empty place and plate at the table to acknowledge that there is someone missing from the group. This can be a poignant method of leaning into the pain of grief for those who are having a hard time accepting the reality of the death. Allowing this kind of pain to be present at the table is important if this is the kind of meal that is going to be shared. Group agreements and expectations are important when planning these meals.
  2. Carry a remembrance item
    Remembrance items are often called “linking objects.” These objects are tangible items we can carry and feel that can help us feel closer to our loved ones through touch. These items can create daily comfort in a very individual way for those who need more personal comfort in their grief experiences.
  3. Create art in the loved one’s memory
    This can involve coloring to relieve anxiety or creating astep-by-step art project resulting in an object that will be meaningful in the grief journey. One family turned a beloved grandpa’s flannel shirts into blankets for each grandchild. Other projects can include creating “memory boxes” which hold small treasures that belonged to the person who has died. Creating the item is just as important as using it; the whole process can be healing and meaningful.
  4. Have a giveaway ritual
    An ancient Lakota funeral tradition is to encourage people to take one of the deceased person’s possessions. This tradition honors the value of giving over receiving and can be incredibly healing if that is a value shared by the family and friends mourning together. The act of giving and receiving can also open up a wealth of sharing of stories and memories that may have been otherwise missed.
  5. Create an altar for the loved one
    An altar is a space to collect and display meaningful items that represent or symbolize the person who has died, the feelings you have for them, and the relationship you have with them. Another important need in grief is to change our relationships with the person who has died. This can be a beautiful way to help us figure out what this can look like and how to move forward in this way. This can be deeply spiritual, or it can be a tangible way to allow us to speak to or honor the person we have lost. The important part of any ritual is that it meets us where we are and meets our needs in a meaningful way.
  6. Light a candle
    This can be a deeply personal and quiet way to acknowledge a loss or can be done as a family or group. Candle lighting can be a powerful ritual to acknowledge the anniversary of a death, a special date or even to honor an extra painful day of grieving. Many of our WinterSpring groups use candlelight as a way to honor the sharing of memories and wishes or to open or close our groups.
  7. Write the loved one a letter
    Writing our loved one a letter can be a healing ritual to help move through feelings of being “stuck” if there are things left unsaid with the person who has died. This can be done individually or as a group. The letters can be shared or kept private. The letters can be burned, released in water, buried, or kept in a memory box depending on what feels the most healing.
  8. Release ceremonies
    Butterflies, balloons, lanterns, and flowers are examples of things you can realease. This ritual can hold a huge amount of meaning and history. Always check with local agencies for what may be most appropriate for your area. For instance, lantern releases are illegal in Southern Oregon at any time of year due to the threat of wildfires. To meet the need for a release ceremony, WinterSpring has used native species of butterflies to release. This has been a beautiful and healing ritual as individuals gathered in groups, whispered their messages to their loved ones according to Native American tradition, and released their little winged messenger into the sky.

Whichever ritual you choose, may they be meaningful to you and those you are grieving with. Many believe that humans are meant to grieve together, and rituals can be one way to do this. Sometimes this is not possible for people who are grieving complicated losses. Unfortunately, some losses can carry a certain level of judgement from others. As heartbreaking as it is, this is especially true for children. Please remember that even complicated relationships must be grieved. Rituals are a beautiful way to meet this need. For many reasons, there are times when we are not free to openly mourn people who have died. This does not mean that we DON’T grieve them. It often means that our grief is harder to heal and more complicated to move through. It is important to acknowledge that rituals can be incredibly important for individual healing. Many of these rituals can be done to honor individual loss in deeply personal and quiet ways which do not have to involve others.

It is important that the ritual you choose meets your spiritual and cultural needs and meets you where you are in your grief journey. If you have questions or need help dealing with grief, please call our WinterSpring team at 541-552-0620.

Leave a Reply