Author Topic: Giving Grief Ritual  (Read 10334 times)

Joe Piazzo

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Giving Grief Ritual
« on: June 17, 2007, 02:58:31 PM »
Giving Grief a Ritual
By the Reverend William Purdy, DD, Vice President, Provider Relations
Continuum Hospice Care, New York


  As a director in one of New York City?s largest hospices, I am aware that every year two thousand people die in our program and leave behind loved ones who mourn for them. My experience has given me insight into the importance of grieving rituals and I have learned how people who have omitted ritual from their grief seem to have to endure more sadness. At our Grieving Center in Manhattan, counselors see people whose sorrow feels unrelenting. Their symptoms are the severe and chronic physical, emotional and spiritual distress that characterizes what is known as complicated grieving. Their stories are also, more often than not, devoid of ritual, either at the time of their loved one?s death or since.

  You might think that in New York, after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, people had come to value the importance of ritual in grief. Thousands of area residents were made to endure the distress of awaiting forensic evidence before planning funerals and memorials and even now, more than five years later, human remains are still being recovered near Ground Zero, and even now memorial services are held. Yet for a significant number of people whose loved ones die expected deaths, ritual grieving remains unexplored.

  Church members usually take for granted their funerals will be conducted according to the rite of the church, and it?s hard to overestimate the comfort the ancient Christian rites afford.  But people who are mourning and do not confess any creed or who believe "perhaps or kind of" but don?t belong to a congregation will also benefit from giving ritual expression to their grieving. More often than not, though, they have no idea how to go about it.  Because the church finds solace and strength from its rites, we can see how helpful a liturgical framework is -- also for people who are not ready or do not care to discern the source and center of these particular rituals.

  Rituals are essential because words alone cannot address the grief.  Words can be sentimental and unfortunately often are repetitive and inappropriate. Words are only one means to mark the ultimate milestone of life.  But life is also filled with sight and smell, movement and touch and music and food!

  Grieving rituals require a structure that includes six elements. In the first place, the rite needs to be observed according to a calendar. It is planned and intentional rather than postponed indefinitely. Second, it needs to include a community. The most effective rituals are witnessed and shared and not solitary. Next, the ritual will fulfill a commitment. Those celebrating the ritual should feel they are keeping a covenant with their loved one to render a final service. Fourth, some form of chant is essential: because music heals, inspires and invites reflection. Fifth, the ritual will bridge the chasm between death and life. It has to present the possibility, even if not the certainty borne of faith, of life beyond the grave. Finally, the ritual will include ceremony. In other words, things have to find expression in nonverbal things like movement, scent, color, dance or drama.

  The universality of the six elements gelled for me recently in India.  I studied with Zoroastrian scholars in Mumbai who explained the grieving rituals of their most ancient form of monotheism.  I learned from  priests and gurus who brought me to witness cremations and taught me Hindu sacraments of the dead. The structures, inherited from antiquity, felt right to my Western sensibilities because, I think, the structures ? though not the content ? transcended religion.  The overall experience made me understand things that are evidently "transferable" for ritual grief.  In some of the examples that follow, you may find the six elements overlap.

A calendar is observed
 The window of opportunity for a grieving ritual does not remain open indefinitely. Just as death occurs at a specific time and place, the grieving ritual needs to also. Hindus in Mumbai follow a rigorous, complex calendar, marking their grief ritual with grass and seeds, sacred threads and stones and holy water from the Ganges on set days for a series of weeks after a loved one dies. The schedule may sound extreme but it illustrates the point that a calendar relieves the grieving of having to decide what to do and when. In New York, when you hear the bereaved say ?We?ll get to it? (referring to a memorial service), the procrastination frequently results in deferring the ritual indefinitely.

  We need structure in our lives most when mourning renders them chaotic. The second important thing about the calendar is that once the initial ritual is completed, we are able to mark significant dates going forward, as we Christians do at All Saints? Day and on the anniversary of a death. Just as Jews do when they pray the Mourner?s Kaddish as they sit shiva for three to seven days and again on the anniversary of a death. Zoroastrian priests lead rites four days after a death at the Towers of Silence and monthly in their fire temples and annually on the festival of Muktad. Rituals observed in timely fashion will give structure to grief and comfort the grieving with the memory of the rite itself.

A community is included
  People develop rituals in memory of loved ones (a husband places a rose before a photograph of his wife, a teenager writes a poem to her father, a man volunteers time to a charitable cause in memory of his partner). The practices are meaningful but individualized. Although grief is personal, to grieve in private only is to be unaware that others are grieving, too, and that comfort comes through a community. Grief needs to be witnessed and it needs to be shared. When a community of friends and family gather at the set time and place, they constitute the second essential element of a grieving ritual. Hindu pallbearers leaned heavily on one another as they carried the garlanded bier of their loved one from their home to the Bombay Hindu Burning Ground and chanted the Sri Rama mantra. They entered through the open gate and rang the bell hanging above to notify the Lord they had arrived.

A commitment is fulfilled
  At Saint Peter?s Church in Manhattan, during the distribution of Holy Communion at the All Saints? liturgy, names of the faithful departed are read, interspersed with the chiming bells. The service leaves you with the feeling of commitment fulfilled to remember the dead.

  The Zoroastrians fulfill the duty by transporting their dead to the Towers of Silence.  There, in order not to pollute the earth or desecrate sacred fire by burying or cremating human remains, they expose the naked bodies of their dead to the elements.  Vultures quickly pick off the flesh. It is the way every Zoroastrian expects to be ?buried," and those who follow through with the responsibility honor a last commitment to their loved ones. A grieving ritual should leave those who mourn with the sense that they rendered the expected service.

A chant is sung    Years ago when I was an assistant pastor in a large congregation in suburban Munich, every funeral included organ, brass and choral music by the Lutheran likes of Bach, Brahms and Buxtehude. Since the liturgy in Bavaria is typically chanted, the funeral music was both elaborate and plainsong. One summer I lived among Navajos in Arizona. Attending an all night ceremony (a sing) made me aware that music in a healing rite works the same as music in a grieving ritual. The Navajos summoned a medicine man who invoked the Great Spirit.  He presided over the drumming and chanting, around a fire, around the patient whose arthritic hand was to be healed with the application of the point of a powerful spear. The repetitive chanting was itself healing. That the sing could have happened without chanting was as unlikely as a Bavarian funeral without Bach. Grieving rituals need music to comfort and enable transcendence; even the simplest chant is an integral part of the rite.

A chasm is bridged
  In the Eucharist, Christians join in prayer and praise ?with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.? The idea of communicating with the dead can be both reassuring and alarming. ?You?re probably going to think I?m a little crazy,? the conversation typically begins, ?but I sense my husband?s presence near me.? People who are grieving say things like this all the time, including people who thought they did not believe in life after death. And yet they report sensing their loved one close to them, more vivid than a memory, not at all vexing like a hallucination, hearing the voice, perhaps, and smelling the scent of that presence. The effective grieving ritual will hold open the possibility of communication with those who have died or of being in communion with life beyond the grave. People of faith know this form of communion as prayer. For people without any faith, prayer raises the possibility that the grave is not the end.

  The Zoroastrian high priest told me that prayers for the dead provide cottonwool cosseting for souls arriving in the next world, thus preventing disorientation.  "Remember how disoriented you were at the Mumbai airport and think about landing someplace beyond our sphere." Hindus invoke generations of their fathers and grandfathers to return to temples to be present for the sacraments after every death.

A ceremony is included
  Our hospice sponsors interfaith memorial services every six months. We invite family members of our former patients to join us, and hundreds do. We always have lots of music ? ranging from classical and jazz to Gospel and popular standards, and family members and staff speak. In addition we have movement ? ceremonies ? that permit people to move and be moved. At one point we invite people to bring a memento of their loved one forward to place on the ?remembrance table? for the duration of the service. At another, we give a video presentation consisting of the photographs families have sent us. Both ceremonies are accompanied with live music, but no spoken words. The ceremonies speak for themselves, and they are the climactic points of the service for everyone who attends, for those who speak English and those who do not, for people of every imaginable heritage, for believers and nonbelievers alike. The rituals work for us like the Navajo medicine man?s powerful point of the spear. Grieving rituals nurture hope. When done richly they include ceremony and chant, fulfill a commitment to the dead, bridge the chasm, according to a calendar and include a community. With care, rituals can ease our grief by giving viable expression to unspeakable sadness and grateful love.

« Last Edit: June 09, 2008, 01:17:44 PM by wpurdy »