In Grief, Try Personal Rituals

The psychology of rituals in overcoming loss, restoring broken order

Alaa Faqir / Reuters

“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.

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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 participantsin 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.

Next, Norton and Gino invited 247 people into their lab to reflect on the death of a loved one or the end of a relationship. To induce grief in the subjects, the social psychologists asked them to write in detail about the loss and describe the emotions and thoughts they experienced at the time it occurred. Then, the researchers divided the group in two: a ritual and a no-ritual condition. Those in the first condition were asked to write about a ritual they performed following the loss. Here, as in the previous study, many people reported private, personal, and emotionally-moving rituals that connected them to the memory of their lost loves in a deep and powerful way.

After the writing exercise was over, the researchers measured the grief of the participants in both conditions. As one would expect, people in both groups became sad doing the exercise, but the people who wrote about rituals were less sad. They reported significantly less grief than those who did not write about rituals. Those in the ritual group, for example, were less inclined to endorse statements (from a standard scale used to measure grief) such as “I feel that life is empty without this person,” “Memories of this person upset me,” and “I feel stunned or dazed over what happened.”

In these experiments, Norton and Gino prompted people to simply write about a major loss and coping ritual. But thinking about a ritual is different from actually doing one after a loss. In their next experiment, the researchers brought 109 people into the lab and made them experience a real loss.

They divided the participants into groups of 9 to 15 people and told them that one person in each group would randomly win $200. They then made the subjects feel attached to the money by asking them to write an essay about why they wanted to win the money and how they would spend it. The person who actually won the lottery then left the room, while the remaining people were assigned to do one of two tasks. Either they drew how they felt (the control condition) or they performed a ritual. In the ritual condition, the people were instructed to draw how they felt on a piece of paper for two minutes, then sprinkle salt over the drawing, then rip the drawing into pieces, and then count to 10 in their heads five times.

After the experiment, Norton and Gino measured levels of grief in both groups. Though losing a lottery is a far cry from losing a loved one, rituals helped here, too. Those who did the ritual reported less grief than the no-ritual group. Even people who said that they don’t think rituals work benefitted from doing the ritual: They didn’t feel as bad about not winning the money.

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Public mourning rituals have a clear purpose. By gathering people together around the bereaved, they help mourners strengthen their bonds and reenter the social world after a major loss. But private rituals do no such thing. They seem to serve no practical function. They seem almost pointless.

Speaking of the widow who washed her husband’s car each week, Norton points out, “She didn’t drive the car. There was no reason to wash the car. Yet you could see clearly how it’s such an emotionally meaningful thing for her.” Why are these private rituals effective? How do they help mourners cope?

One of the most common responses to loss is feeling like the world is out of control. Day to day, most people go about their lives thinking they are in command. They decide what they do, whom they see, and where they go. And death—a familiar part of life in the past, when diseases were untreatable and public parks were cemeteries—is now remote, for the most part unseen, and often unthought of. So the sudden death of a loved one can shock and stun. The bereaved can be overcome by a helplessness that is otherwise foreign to their lives. As Didion writes in The Year of Magical Thinking: “Everything’s going along as usual and then all shit breaks loose.”

When Norton and Gino probed deeper into the emotional and mental lives of their research subjects, they found that rituals help people overcome grief by counteracting the turbulence and chaos that follows loss. Rituals, which are deliberately-controlled gestures, trigger a very specific feeling in mourners—the feeling of being in control of their lives. After people did a ritual or wrote about doing one, they were more likely to report thinking that “things were in check” and less likely to feel “helpless,” “powerless,” and “out of control.”

Didion’s husband died the evening of December 30, 2003, just as the two of them were about to sit down to dinner. He was having a drink when a massive heart attack killed him probably within minutes. “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends,” she writes. The paramedics arrived at their apartment at 9:20 p.m.; Dunne was rushed to the hospital at 10:05 p.m.; he was pronounced dead at 10:18 p.m.

What stands out in her account of that evening is what she did when she returned home that night alone. She ritualistically sorted through the items that were in the pockets of the pants he was wearing when he died: “I remember combining the cash that had been in his pocket with the cash in my own bag, smoothing the bills, taking special care to interleaf twenties with twenties, tens with tens, fives and ones with fives and ones. I remember thinking as I did this that he would see that I was handling things.” To Didion, the sorting of bills was symbolic. Deliberately done, it was meant to help restore the broken order of her world, to reveal she was in control and “handling things.”

Dr. Johnson points out that “for sorrow there is no remedy provided by nature; it is often occasioned by accidents irreparable, and dwells upon objects that have lost or changed their existence; it requires what it cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead should return, or the past should be recalled.”

Those who are grieving cannot raise the dead or change the laws of nature. But by performing their own private rituals, the bereaved can regain their footing in a world that has become a little emptier than it was before.