In Grief, Try Personal Rituals

The psychology of rituals in overcoming loss, restoring broken order

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” writes Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking. “We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.”

We cannot know, she says, when we lose the person we love—as she lost her husband John Gregory Dunne 11 years ago—“the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” The tragedy of such grief is that the loss of a loved one is irreversible. It is total and final.

Even so, while some of the grief-stricken remain depressed for long periods of time—developing what’s called “complicated grief”—most people move on. They eventually settle into their old routines or develop new ones. Their lives recover a semblance of order. Sad though they may continue to be, they are no longer held hostage by the chaos of their emotions. They are resilient.

George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University and author of The Other Side of Sadness, has studied grief for over 20 years. Among his most provocative findings is that 50 to 60 percent of mourners show no symptoms of grief one month following the loss. Some even overcome the grief within days.

What drives these people forward? What holds the others back? And why do some mourners recover from grief quickly—much more quickly—than others? Psychologists who study these questions note that there is no single factor that predicts who copes well and who does not. Many variables, from your personality to your social world to your levels of stress before the loss, play distinct roles.

A new study, though, hints at an answer. There is a specific way many people can, no matter what their circumstances may be, transcend despair and distress.

* * *

Researchers Michael I. Norton and Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School wanted to know how people cope with extreme loss. In the study, published in February in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, they found that some mourners are more emotionally resilient than others, and those who overcome their grief more quickly all have something very important in common. Following the loss, they performed what the researchers refer to as “rituals” in the study. But these were not your typical rituals.

When many people think of mourning rituals, they think of public displays of bereavement such as funerals, wearing black for a certain period of time, or religious customs like “sitting shiva” in Judaism (a period of seven days when the bereaved are visited by guests). Though the substance of these rituals may vary—Catholic Latinos view crying as a sign of respect at funerals while Tibetan Buddhists see it as a disruption—public mourning rituals occur across nearly all cultures.

Norton, the lead author of the study, first became interested in this line of research after reading Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering. The book details the public mourning rituals, often tied to clothing, of Confederate widows during the Civil War.

“Reading it, I thought maybe there is something here,” he told me, “that helps them cope in a meaningful way.”

To determine what that “something” was, Norton and Gino asked 76 research participants in their first study to write about a significant loss they experienced, like the end of a relationship or the death of someone they love. They also asked the participants to explain how they coped with the loss and to describe any rituals they did.

The researchers were surprised by the results. Many of the rituals reported were not the public ones that inspired Norton. Rather, they were private rituals. Only 15 percent of the described rituals had a social element (and just 5 percent were religious). By far, most of the rituals people did were personal and performed alone.

For example, one person, following a breakup, performed this ritual: “I returned alone to the location of the breakup each month on the anniversary of the breakup to help cope with my loss and think things over.” Another person gathered all of the pictures they took as a couple during their relationship and “then destroyed them into small pieces (even the ones I really liked!), and then burnt them in the park where we first kissed.”

The mourning rituals were especially moving. One woman who lost her mother would “play the song by Natalie Cole ‘I miss you like crazy’ and cry every time I heard it and thought of my mom.”

A man whose wife passed away wrote: “In these fifteen years I have been going to hairdressers to cut my hair every first Saturday of the month as we used to do together.” Another lady, whose husband died, said she still washes his car each week as he had done when he was alive.

These private rituals are very sad. One would expect that performing them—and writing about them—would make mourners more depressed by reminding them of who and what they have lost. But that’s not what happens, as the researchers discovered in a follow-up study.

Presented by

Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer based in New Haven, Connecticut. She is the Manners and Morals columnist at The New Criterion, managing editor of the Hoover Institution's Defining Ideas, and editor of Acculturated.

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