Filling the Void

Ritualistic behaviors before, during or after a significant event are culturally pervasive.  We perform rituals to help alleviate anxiety or grief or promote positive feelings.  Some rituals are public; many are private.  Although rituals vary and can be intensely personal, researchers have found that they mostly help people.   

Mourning Rituals

Funerals and memorial services are among the most common public mourning rituals in our culture. The rituals surrounding death are meant to give solace to survivors and project a meaningful existence to life.  We mourn the person whose presence we will miss and we grieve for the pain the deceased and loved ones may have suffered.  We also grieve missed opportunities: an intimacy we longed for that is no longer possible.

Although rituals around death are generally thought to be healing, the public rituals also get complicated by societal expectations and other factors. I recently attended a memorial service for a deceased family member. I witnessed another family member who had been estranged from the deceased thank a very close friend of the deceased for attending the memorial service…never mind that the friend had been supportive for decades while the family member was largely absent.

Years ago, when I was a high school counselor, I observed what I labeled “competitive grieving.”  Two students on my caseload died suddenly and tragically within months of each other. Students and their families in this close-knit community were shaken.  Those who barely knew the students wailed loudly; students who were close to the deceased resented this.

Life and Loss

People grieve differently.  When someone dies, feelings of loss are triggered that may have little to do with the person who died.  Regardless of the root cause of the pain, performing rituals around loss of any type can help us move beyond the emptiness.  I have heard of people burning letters and photos of former significant others upon a painful breakup. 

I, myself, engaged in a private ritual after my father died which proved meaningful to me.  At the time of his death, I was training to run the New York City Marathon.  My father was born and raised in the Bronx so, during the marathon, when we crossed the Willis Avenue Bridge leading to the Bronx, I scattered the ashes of a goodbye letter I had written my father into the Harlem River. 

Nothing reverses the loss one feels after a death of a loved one or a painful divorce or breakup.  Performing small, private rituals can help fill the void left when someone or something is suddenly absent from your life.