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Health and Spirituality Department

Please remember, this column is designed to help the consumer seeking behavioral-health information, and not intended to be any form of psychotherapy or a replacement for professional, individualized services. Opinions expressed in the column are those of the columnist and do not represent the position of other SelfhelpMagazine.com staff.


I recently lost a relative I loved a great deal. My culture has some very traditional ways of dealing with death and I found some of them actually helpful. Are there other ways that such rituals might help us?


Rituals are actually a common element of life. We tend to develop ritualized ways of starting and ending our days. We tend to develop rituals around very basic functions such as mealtime. Rituals can be a very effective way of communicating complex messages. They can provide a certain order to our lives. And they can ease our way through otherwise difficult transitions. On the other hand, some rituals outlive their usefulness, but families and individuals hold onto them, trying to maintain certain life qualities by minimizing change. Such rituals can become inflexible and empty.

Dealing with death is certainly one major life transition which can be aided by rituals. In my own Irish Catholic culture, the phenomenon of an Irish wake served the function of brining a community together around the family experiencing the loss and helping that family grieve through the sharing of memories. This was done along specific guidelines, evolved over years and centuries of a specific culture dealing with loss.

In a much more ordinary way, mealtime rituals organize a family into a hierarchy and communicate messages about values and roles. In my own family, for example, music is typically played during mealtime, conveying a message about the value of music and also on the need to relax at this particular moment.

Take a moment and make a diagram of the seating arrangement of your family at dinner time. Also make a diagram of the arrangement of the family in which you grew up. What has changed? Stayed the same? What messages were communicated about power? About different relationships? About roles and duties?

If anything, our culture could probably use more rituals. There are few rituals to mark the passage of young men and women from adolescence to adulthood, adding confusion to an already confusing time. There are no rituals to help step-families come together subsequent to remarriage. I dealt recently with a woman who had ended a six-year live-in relationship. There are no rituals to ease that transition. Some would undoubtedly help.

Look at the role rituals have played in your life, examining day-to-day rituals, celebration rituals such as birthdays, holiday rituals, and life passage rituals. Assess which ones you wish to maintain and even pass on and which have outlived their usefulness. You might also find interesting and helpful the book Rituals for Our Times by Evan Imber-Black and Janine Roberts (Harper Collins, 1992). This is a very accessible study of the place and value of ritual in many aspects of life. You may order this book through our bookstore.


Richard B. Patterson is a clinical psychologist in private practice in El Paso, TX. He is the author of three books on psychology and spirituality.


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