Wednesday, March 16, 2011

On the Power of Ritual to Make Meaning for Survivors of Suicide Loss

Reprinted with permission from the American Association of Suicidology's Newslink newsletter

Many of us who are caught up in the conspiracy of busyness are often cut off from our grief. In many cultures in the U.S., we are trained to be fearful of death; we are conditioned to “get over” our loss and move on as quickly as possible. However, as a Jewish prayer states, “We do best homage to our dead by living our lives fully even in the shadow of our loss. Our grief is what allows us to begin to live our lives fully again after loss.” One of the ways I have found to work through the grief and loss of my brother’s suicide is through healing rituals.

Rituals are symbolic actions that usually acknowledge or honor transitions in our lives and can be very powerful tools for processing our emotions. For one, they can provide some containment for what feels like a chaotic, out-of-control experience. We usually don’t know what to do, especially in the aftermath of an unanticipated trauma like suicide. Rituals sometimes have very soothing, reassuring aspects to them and give our minds something meaningful to focus upon.

Many other reasons for the effectiveness of rituals exist. When words don’t suffice, rituals offer symbolic means to communicate. Community rituals help build a sense of solidarity. As we try to figure out a “new normal” in our individual and family lives, rituals can help give us structure. Rituals can become intentional releases like pressure valves; they can bring forth cherished memories and connect us to what matters most. Every year I engage in and facilitate a number of rituals for myself, my family and my community. Here are some:

Rituals of remembrance: Probably the most common rituals for grieving a loss are rituals of remembrance. Lighting candles in honor of our loved ones is a powerful and beautiful acknowledgement of the light they brought to the world. Saying the names of our deceased loved ones out loud also has a strong impact. I remember after my brother died by suicide, I was at a complete loss on what to do on Father’s Day for my Dad. When I meditated on this question, the image of a Weeping American Elm flashed in my mind’s eye. Planting a tree together provided a ritual that symbolized Carson’s enduring spirit and the seasons of our lives. Watching the tree grow reminds us that our bond with him continues.
Rituals of communication: Rituals of communication can give us the opportunity to say the things we couldn’t or didn’t while our loved one was alive. One way to do this is by writing a letter or a poem to our loved one.

Rituals of nurturing: Grieving is hard work, and often we are so overwhelmed by the intensity of our emotions, we forget to take care of ourselves. In the process, we can find ourselves drained or continually sick, and this just adds to our misery. Having a “comfort box” nearby can give us some ideas on how we can replenish ourselves. Soothing music or aromatherapy might be nurturing for some. Other people might include religious passages or affirmations that they find grounding. Pictures or stories that make us laugh or warm our soul can also help.

Rituals of reflection: In our busy lives we often find it hard to pause and reflect on where we have been, where we are at and where we are going. Rituals of reflection give us the space and structure to do this. Sometimes this form of ritual can be through meditation or prayer. Others times we may find journaling or drawing serve this purpose. I find long periods of meditation open up channels of thought or insight I cannot get in any other way. I follow these practices with journaling around the insights I have received, and I often look back on these entries to “connect the dots” of themes in my entries.

Rituals of community connection: Many of the local and national suicide prevention walks offer rituals of community connection as a way to publicly honor our loved ones and create a sense of belongingness among bereaved people. I have seen balloon releases, dove releases, and “mardi gras” bead wearing as examples of these community practices. At our AAS conference each year we have our survivor quilts (quilts made to honor our loved ones who died by suicide) displayed. These group rituals let us know we are not alone in our pain.

Rituals of release: Sometimes we have places in our grief that seem to get in our way. Guilt, anger, and regret can fester and keep us stuck. For rituals of release, some people have written these thoughts out on paper and then have burned the paper as a symbol of letting these toxic emotions go. Others have buried symbols of these emotions in the ground.

On the anniversary of my brother’s death, I bring out everything I have that reminds me of him. I usually take the day off from work and have the house to myself. I watch videos, look at pictures, and read the letters he wrote to me. I smile as I read the 10-year-old handwritten note he send me while I was at summer camp. I cry as I watch the video of him joyously playing with his daughter. I look at the pictures of us hugging at different ages in our lives and think, “he loved me, he loved me, he loved me.” And I put my finger right on the grieving, because I never want to lose touch with why I do this work. I will always remember, and I believe he walks with me as I go on this journey.

At the close of the Healing after Suicide Conference in April, we will have a healing ceremony for survivors of suicide loss. If you have a ritual you have found to be particularly powerful that can be done in a large group setting, I would love to have your ideas. Please, email me at
For more resources for Survivors of Suicide Loss visit the American Association of Suicidology: click here.

The Carson J Spencer Foundation offers families recently bereaved by suicide iCare Packages (semi-customized resources packets). For more information: click here.

What rituals have helped you or others who have been bereaved by suicide?

1 comment:

tub75431 said...

I love this blog entry. My father killed himself when I was young, the 3rd grade. I, personally, never got involved in any of these specific remembrance rituals probably because I was so young when it happened. On the other hand, though, I have the handful of things that he gave me (a harmonica, a ring, a bracelet) and the few pictures that I have of him all around my apartment. This helps me to remember him every day, not only on his birthday and anniversary of his death. But, as Abel Keogh wrote, "...the suicide of a loved one is a unique monster." Everybody handles surviving suicide in their own ways, and your ways are perfect. It is these rituals, no matter what they are, that let us get on with daily life. I may even adopt one or two of yours for myself.