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