What is ritual?
The dictionary defines a ritual as: "a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order."
However, we live in an increasingly secular world. That doesn't mean there isn't room for religious rites and rituals, but, that we expand our definition of ritual to encompass more secular traditions.
A ritual does not have to be complicated or solemn. In fact, ritual in the context of grief, in my opinion, should have a least some element of joy. You are, after all, celebrating a life lived and loved. Solemnity certainly has its place, but if you choose to create a rite that means your family will laugh through their tears it can help heal their hearts in another way.
During a vigil plan I help create a variety of rituals as well as the actual vigil. These rituals tend to be simple and very emotionally loaded with a heavy dose of symbolism. For example, a large pillar candle is lit at the beginning of active dying and after the last breath those who have sat vigil light smaller candles from the original flame and the pillar candle's flame is extinguished. The action is simple and the symbolism obvious, although the dying person's light can no longer be seen where it was, it exists still spread out among those who loved them. This short ritual is very powerful and can be as religious or not as you want. For those who practice religion they are showing the divine's presence, for those who are secular it is a representation of the spreading of energy. The lighting of candles is often integrated into religious rites, but can also just be lighting a candle.
In the candle you have a sense of solemnity but how do you integrate joy into something so sad? Did you ever watch the movie 'Raising Helen' with Kate Hudson? Kate's character inherits her sister's children after she was tragically killed in a traffic accident. Kate's character is apprehensive about taking the children until she reads a letter from her sister included with the will. The content of the letter is the lyrics of 'Whip It' by Devo. It was their inside joke. Do you have some silly quirk? Something that is so clearly your signature that your loved ones will groan and roll their eyes even at your death? When creating the rituals for your vigil make them as personal as possible. Make them so very YOU that those mourning you will feel your presence even as you slip away.
I also advocate creating a ritual for the anniversary of your death. Your family and loved ones will have navigated an entire year without you. A whole year of trying to figure out who trims the tree or carves the turkey or whatever your role is in whatever holidays you celebrate. If you spend Thanksgiving yelling at the football game while your family prepares dinner, the quiet will be felt in a visceral way. Even when your partner scowls at you for not helping set the table they will only feel a hole in the lack of scorn for your preoccupation with football. Your loved ones would rather be annoyed for that thing you do every year than have to endure without you. The anniversary of their loss should be memorialized. If you create a small ritual, this one can be more complex since they have time to plan it, they can acknowledge their grief and loss and have a piece of you back. You love chocolate cake but everyone else wants yellow cake? On this anniversary they will eat the chocolate gladly. Maybe the candle that was extinguished at your last breath is displayed and lit again for an hour to symbolically have you whole. Your family can talk about what has happened 'telling you' about their lives since your death.
These rituals are about your family coping with their loss, having a prescribed series of actions to help them wade through the grief. We live in a society that expects you to recover and move through your life again seemingly moments after the funeral. We need to acknowledge that the survivors are every day trying to navigate a 'new normal'. Your loss, to them, changes how they do everything. By giving them structured moments to grieve without the pressure of society telling them their mourning should be over by now, they can begin to heal.
If it seems these rituals are done not for you, you are right. The vigil plan is for you. The rituals are for your family. All of it though, gives you a sense of peace, peace knowing your family will be okay, and peace knowing that although it will be the end it will be beautiful and still so you.
What quirk would you want your family to integrate into a ritual?
My name is Abby, my life has been touched many times by loss and grief. This life has led me to helping others navigate their own grief. I have become a INELDA trained End Of Life Doula and a hospice volunteer. I am not a professional counselor or psychologist and all advice given should be treated as advice from a friend.