Our lives are full of transitions – going from here to there, one place to another, one task to
another, one activity to another. And those are just in one day. Add to that the major
transitions from one stage of life to another, from one job to another, from one city to another,
and ultimately from life to death. How do we honor those many transitions in a healthy way?
One way is through ritual.
Rituals are symbolic actions that express the values of the participants. As Jim Clarke writes in
Creating Rituals: A New Way of Healing in Everyday Life, “a ritual gives body to the inner reality
of the participants.” Rituals can be done in the community, in a religious setting, among
families, in solitude and at the workplace – basically anywhere and everywhere.
In my life, rituals abound. From my son having pre-game rituals, to my lighting and
extinguishing candles to set aside the beginning and end to a session or retreat, to my creating
and officiating at funerals and other types of letting-go ceremonies, I see their benefits every
day. I think in our souls, we know we need rituals to help heal, empower and move us through
transitions. Our culture tries to tell us otherwise. In my work with the Helping Grieving Hearts
Heal at Koch Funeral Home, I sometimes talk with people who aren't sure whether they want to
have a service honoring their loved ones’ – either their loved ones said they didn’t want
anything or the individuals themselves don’t think they “need” anything. What I can tell you is
time after time the individuals who decide to have a service make sure to share with
me later that they are grateful for their decision and now understand why it was important.
One woman shared that by going through the steps, she felt herself getting moved along in her
grief. As funeral director and author Thomas Lynch, says, “A good funeral is one that gets the
dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.” Rituals help do that – they
move us from one place to another and they make us feel better in the process. Both history
and science support this.
Humans have used rituals since very early times - archaeological evidence shows that
Neanderthals were buried with flowers. These people acknowledged the transition from life to
death with a ritual of covering their dead with flowers.
According to the research of Michael I. Norton and Francesca Gino of the Harvard Business
School, rituals help people feel better and reduce grief, even for people who don’t believe in
their effectiveness. Norton and Gino’s studies began with asking 76 research participants to
write about a significant loss in their life, explaining how they coped, and rituals they enacted.
To the surprise of Norton and Gino the majority of the rituals described were personal and
done alone. For example, a widow washed her deceased husband’s car every week just as he
had done. Another woman returned monthly to the place of her breakup to cope and think.
Wondering if both enacting and then writing about these rituals would make the participants
sad, Norton and Gino conducted another study.
This time they asked 247 people to write about and describe the emotions and thoughts at the
time of a significant loss in their life. These people were then divided into two groups, a ritual
and a no-ritual group. The ritual group wrote about a ritual they performed after the loss. The
study found that both groups experienced sadness during the experiment, however, those who
wrote about the ritual reported significantly less sadness. Knowing how the group reacted to
thinking about a ritual, Norton and Gino next decided to study reactions after an actual ritual.
In a subsequent study, 109 participants were divided into groups of 9 to 15 people and told that
one person in their group would be randomly chosen to win $200. Before the winner’s name
was chosen, each person wrote an essay explaining why they wanted the money and what they
would do with it. Next the winner left the room and those remaining either drew how they felt
or participated in a ritual with a random combination of acts - drawing how they felt for two
minutes, sprinkling salt over the drawing, ripping it into pieces and silently counting to 10 five
times. The study found that those who performed the ritual reported less grief than those who didn’t. In addition, even people who didn’t think rituals work benefitted from participating in one.
Further study by Norton and Gino found that rituals help by providing individuals with a sense
of control when things feel uncertain. They also found that rituals reduced stress, increased
confidence, and heightened performance – all things that affect the bottom line.
Rituals can help businesses and organizations reap these benefits as well as bring people
together and better define the values of their culture. They can do it as a group, for example by
celebratory gong ringing when closing deals or vowing to not cut hair until a project is done.
They can also encourage individuals to create personal rituals. I worked with a woman who
would take a few minutes to write down her frustrations with co-workers, walk to the paper
shredder and shred the document. A simple ritual that helped her let go of negative feelings.
The opportunities are endless. And the more you participate in rituals, the more they’ll work for
Article originally appeared in Centered magazine