Grief throughout has moments of being so overwhelming that it numbs the mind and body while at times succumbing one to deep catatonic states.
Words can fail to express the enormousness one feels in the wake of losing a loved one. With a loss for words to express the feelings then how may one express the deepest parts of their grief?
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Create a Place of Memory
- Make Physical Tokens as Offerings
- Create a Lasting Legacy
- Celebrate Important Dates
- Make an Annual or Commemorative Pilgrimage
Eventually, most will move on in some form or another to return to their lives, to fall into new or old routines and though they will always carry sadness the initial paralysis that accompanies loss can subside. It is thought that rituals performed after loss help aid in the healing and coping of extreme loss.
Michael I. Norton and Francesca Gino, behavioral scientists and professors at Harvard University say that, “Although the specific rituals in which people engage after losses vary widely by culture and religion—and among our participants—our results suggest a common psychological mechanism underlying their effectiveness: regained feelings of control.”
As someone who has experienced the debilitating—and at times overwhelming—effects of loss, I can personally attest to the positive results that I continue experiencing from performing my own grief rituals in the wake of my 3-year-old son Legend’s passing. These rituals for me were not based on religion but had social and cultural influences.
Due to the sudden and unexpected nature of my son’s death, I was in no way prepared to face the realities that we would suddenly be subjected to. Despite my loss, time never stopped for me. I was still a mother of two other children and a wife. Kids still needed to be fed, needs needed to be met and the everyday life of society was rapping at my doorstep.
These grief rituals have given me a semblance of routine and connection to my son. They did not erase the pain, nor do I think they ever will because that pain is rooted in a deep irreversible loss. These rituals provided a guidepost for me when I needed it most.
Before getting started, I would like to remind you to do whatever feels right for you as an individual. There will be a plethora of advice, people trying to relate and—though they have good intentions—they will never be able to understand the vastness of your emotions. It is important to establish boundaries with not only what but who you give your time to as you heal and go through discovering what it means to live in the wake of loss.
It is a very personal journey that requires being uncomfortable, patient, and diving deeper into what it means to live fearlessly in spite of death. Wherever your journey leads you, remember there is never a wrong way. Each experience is unique in its own ways and results in different outcomes, practices, and behaviors.
Sometimes our grief rituals may look like sitting in complete silence while other times they are elaborately thought out practices. Don’t forget that it depends on your day-to-day moods, feelings, and emotions. This is something I have learned changes quite frequently in the early stages of loss. Whatever it may look like to you please use these practices below as a guide rather than law, feel free to add or remove whatever works.
Create a Place of Memory
Legend’s body was cremated and scattered in the beautiful turquoise Pacific Ocean in a town that both my husband and I grew up playing in front of. The house our son was born in is right in front of where we scattered his ashes. It is a place that feels truly like heaven on earth.
We have spent countless hours running, napping, playing on the beach, watching the sun peek above the horizon and the full moon rise leaving beautiful crystal light reflections along the ocean. It truly is a magical place that holds so many memories of joy, happiness, and peace in all our hearts.
Since his passing, I have found it to be extremely healing to swim out to where we scattered his ashes. Whether there is rain or shine, it brings peace and connection that we crave. It was something I was ritually doing; every other day, then every week and now it has become something I do when I feel an urge.
In particular, I found that in the early stages of grief a lot of my actions were based on doing rather than deeply feeling. These days as time has passed, I have been able to think and feel a lot more and crave memories of the past.
Make Physical Tokens as Offerings
I have found that physical objects bring back memories and create an unspoken narrative between my son and I.
Now when I go down to the beach, I walk to our favorite tree and touch these soft silver leaves. He used to ask me to pick these leaves and we would rub them across each others’ cheeks in awe of how nature could make something so soft.
I go and grab these little sea berries that he thoroughly enjoyed smashing in his hands and add that to my collection. I add sage or basil from our herb bush to infuse this offering with memories of when he and I used to cook. His favorite task involved going out back and grabbing these herbs. If I find a baby coconut or "totonut" as he called it, I include that as well.
I take all these different things that remind me of him and wrap them in a large Ti leaf and prepare what looks somewhat like an offering. This process of foraging for these memory-laden objects elicit not only valuable memories, but carves out time to help me reflect on lighter times.
This ritual has been extremely healing and helped me process the bond we made. Although he is not present physically, he is still ever-present within these memories.
Here are some suggestions:
- Gather objects, write words that remind you of your loved one, cut out pictures, or walk around nature and gather things that allow you to reminisce of happy times. You can wrap them in something natural such as leaves, place them in a small wooden bowl, or put in something as simple as an envelope.
- Take it to your loved one’s grave, if you are wanting to, you could leave this there almost as an offering, you can talk about these things when visiting the grave and what they mean to you.
- Create an altar in your home that you spend time at remembering your loved one and the things you have done together. I take this bundle out in the ocean and release it while treading water and talking to my son. I’ve also made these bundles and brought them into my home while lighting incense and writing as a comfort in his absence.
Create a Lasting Legacy
Another thing we have done is create a foundation that honors our son’s life and passions. Legend was only three when he passed away but he was fascinated with skateboards before he could even walk. He was able to master standing and pedaling on his own, and always opted for the skatepark over the jungle gym. In his wake, we created a foundation that honors his life and gives back to other children.
We help host a skate contest in our hometown once a year around his birthday and a portion of money generated from that contest pays for one child to go to the local skateboarding school for an entire year and provides them with all the gear they need. We also give back and continue further education to advocate for end-of-life care and throw pop-ups throughout the year.
Doing this has kept us active in the skateboarding community and offers a way for my daughters to remember him and share stories about him to people who may not have known him otherwise.
Doing this sheds a light on something that at times feels so dark to us all. You can honor your loved one as well by incorporating their passions and creating spaces to give back in their name.
- You could host a monthly book club for others that are grieving in your loved one’s name
- Spearhead a pop-up art gallery of your loved one’s favorite mediums and donate proceeds to a local school in their honor
- Create a music program for the elderly, homeless shelters, orphanages, schools, etc. in your loved one’s name.
- Have an annual sports game that donates proceeds to youth or adult programs in your loved one’s name.
- Organize a local beach cleanup or national park cleanup in your loved one’s name
- Create an event for others grieving to come and plant a tree in their loved one’s names.
The options are immeasurable, and the scale of what you do is up to you. My only advice would be to set reasonable goals with reasonable expectations.
Starting off small can illuminate your loved one’s life in a huge way, and gives others the opportunity to honor them as well. Oftentimes people avoid doing something in their loved one’s name in fear that it will not turn out to their liking.
It takes time and sometimes a team of people to carry out your vision. Be patient, ask people who you feel may be able to help support your cause and don’t give up!
Our first year of running the skate contest was a huge success but it took a lot of time to plan and execute accordingly. This year ran way smoother, with an even higher turnout, and there was so much incredible support. Just remember to be patient and have fun while doing it.
Celebrate Important Dates
Celebrate those important milestones. It’s something that we all love to do, and I know the absence of the person we love is so huge that we often try and tune out to beautiful celebrations we once shared with that person.
The truth is, those celebrations bring forth some of the most unforgettable, heartwarming memories we have experienced with our loved ones. Although they may not physically be with us, their essence and joie de vivre is.
Celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations may seem really hard at first. They may look a lot different than the time you two of you spent together on earth but I can assure you that with time and your own spin on things, I think you may find that celebrating these dates can bring a connection that death cannot take away.
We celebrate my son’s birthday every year with his favorite cake and skateboarding. We swim out to him, bring our offering, and watch the sunrise. We celebrate his life to remind ourselves that his existence was not a dream but something that was of this world, real flesh and bones.
I’m sure he would not be wanting to watch the sunrise at six in the morning, but we have mixed our own grieving needs with the joy that his life has brought us. It’s this sadness and joy that co-exists within me, reminding me that I can be a grieving mother while also feeling joy in the nuances of each day.
Some suggestions you can do to celebrate are:
- Arrange a small intimate dinner, bbq or movie to celebrate birthdays with people whose company your loved one enjoyed doing things they loved.
- Travel to a place you both spent time in together or were planning on spending time together in, bring a picture of them along and make sure to stop at places that remind you of specific memories of them. Allow yourself to feel the sadness, joy, and happiness. It’s ok that these celebrations evoke sadness in the wake of loss.
- Go to the place of burial, bring their favorite music, dessert and something funny that you both laughed about. Don’t be ashamed to talk to your loved one out loud about whatever your heart desires.
Make an Annual or Commemorative Pilgrimage
Lastly, my family and I were able to embark on a part-ritual, part-pilgrimage into our lives, after the loss of my son. We were very fortunate to travel so far thanks to our amazing community, and venture to New Zealand and Australia.
We planned to go as a family to New Zealand when Legend was with us, but due to unforeseen circumstances, we had to cancel that trip last minute. When we decided we wanted to go somewhere after he had passed, it seemed only natural to embark on our road trip throughout New Zealand.
It was bittersweet for everyone, full of so many emotions, and lots of emotional breakdowns. We did not leave our cozy home in the Pacific and leave our heartache there, as it followed us and at times magnified especially in close quarters.
The trip taught us to let go of expectations of ourselves and each other. It also taught us to follow our hearts rather than a pre-planned journey. It enhanced our empathy and understanding for one another and ourselves.
We were relaxed, invigorated, triggered, and able to bond all at the same time. With so much time being spent in nature, this became my first real lesson on how to connect to my son in absence of his physical form. Whether it was jumping into ice-cold waters, looking up at the gigantic trees overhead or driving for miles looking out at the ever-changing landscape, I felt Legend in it all.
New Zealand mirrored back my greatest fears, my inner longings, and insecurities but most of all it showed me the connection that is and always will be present between my son and I. We ended our trip with a stay by a fun surf spot in Australia, surfing, eating popsicles, walking barefoot through the town, and listening to music playing throughout the streets.
This lifestyle was familiar to us, as it resonated with its boundless creativity and ignited my passion. It also reminded me once again that opposing feelings can co-exist. It was the best way to end our time together to re-connect, catch our breath and reflect on how far we had come in that short month and where we were headed.
Going somewhere does not have to be a month-long nor do you need to travel across the globe. Getting lost in nature or in something unfamiliar is really all it takes. Heading out to someplace unknown that re-connects you with nature and your passions is definitely a must when healing.
Here are some things to do:
- Go on a road trip to a favorite place you both shared or somewhere that brings you peace. Better yet, put your finger down on a map and head there. Sometimes the lessons, teachings, and healings are in the unknown!
- Go on a camping trip to the river, lake, beach or mountains. Bring a journal or camera and just go sit in nature. Something about being completely alone in the quiet has brought me an overwhelming sense of peace and connection. Taking time to listen reminds us of our deeper connections in the world and with our loved ones.
- If finances allow for it, go on a trip to a place that you have longed to go to or fallen in love with. Packing up, leaving your routines behind, and focusing on just being was so healing for us. Tasting new food, seeing new faces, exploring new places and realizing that no matter where I go these feelings will follow but that there is always room for joy, passion, and growth.
Wherever you end up will bring forth just what you need in those moments. Just remember to allow yourself to feel the good, the bad, and the ugly. Be patient with yourself and have fun knowing it is ok to just be!
Make Time for Grief Rituals
One thing that I cannot stress enough is to carve out time. Make the time to perform self-care and rituals that help process and acknowledge the depths of your grief. I have found that when I try to move past my own grief, I am plummeted 100 steps back to face it head-on. When I tried to move past or ignore my grief, it required a lot more emotional work to feel at peace than if I had continually checked in with myself.
Whether you are making a shrine, celebrating your loved one’s life or traveling to distant corners of the earth, your journey is authentically and beautifully yours and yours alone. While people may have advice, only you know the ways to heal yourself. Stay true to yourself and honor what you need each day.
Time may pass, but taking time to honor your own grief by practicing and embarking on rituals can help. Know that these rituals will never take away the pain but will make living with your loss a little lighter. May your journey forward be full of connection, love, peace, and growth.
“It is not in the absence of my death but the spirit of my life where you will find me.” - Chloé Pestana
Chloé Pestana is a writer, advocate, and continual student of life. It is through her life experiences that she has been able to offer her personal perspective on death and dying after the sudden loss of her otherwise healthy 3-year-old son. Chloé is passionate about writing and speaking as tools to bring awareness to death and dying and shift the current narrative to one that is more death positive. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her 2 daughters and husband on the beautiful island of Oahu at the beach or in the mountains. With a passion for life, Chloé believes it is only natural that we acknowledge death in a less fearful and more humanistic way. “Life and death are intertwined may we learn to marry the two so that we may not only live well but also die well”. -Chloé Pestana.
You can find more from Chloé at www.chloepestana.com
- Gino, Francesca and Michael Norton. “Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers, and Lotteries.” Harvard Business School, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 2014, Vol. 143, No. 1, pp. 266-272. www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/norton%20gino%202014_e44eb177-f8f4-4f0d-a458-625c1268b391.pdf