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Can Rituals Help Us Deal with Grief?

Using rituals can be more effective in controlling grief than you might think.

It's safe to say that grief is universal.

Everybody experiences loss, whether it's the loss of a loved one, the ending of a romantic relationship,  or any sort of a serious setback in life. The process of dealing wiith that grief often involves mourning "rituals" that vary across different times and cultures. Funeral customs can be vary widely for people of different religions. For Jewish mourners for example, along with the elaborate funeral customs associated with a death, mourners are also expected to tear a garment and, in the case of certain forms of Judaism, for men to be forbidden to shave their beards. On the other hand, Hindu males mourning a loss are expected to shave their heads and beards as part of the mourning ritual.   

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How mourners respond emotionally to a death can also be carefully controlled by mourning rituals. Crying during funerals is considered disruptive by Tibetan Buddhists while other cultures, including Latino Catholics, consider crying to be a sign of respect.  Rituals can also vary depending on whether you are a man or a woman. For example, crying at a funeral is considered to be more acceptable for women than for men overall. Male mourners are often expected to be more stoic in dealing with their loss. But mourning doesn't just happen with the loss of a loved one. 

Rituals can also help people come to terms with grief following the loss of a relationship, a job, or even an important competition. A new research article published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General examined the powerful effect that grieving rituals can play in helping people cope with the often chaotic impact of loss. Written by Michael Norton and Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School,  the article presents a series of studies looking at the type of rituals people use to cope with grief and loss. Defining ritual  as " a symbolic activity that is performed before, during, or after a meaningful event in order to achieve some desired outcome—from alleviating grief to winning a competition to making it rain",  Norton and Gino suggest that using rituals can help people relieve negative feelings.  

Though rituals can be highly formal, such as the kind of rituals seen in many religions, they can also be informally created by people needing to find a way to come to terms with grief. Since people who have suffered some kind of loss often feel as if their lives are out of control, using rituals can help restore that feeling of control and, in turn, make it easier for them to cope with grief. While rituals can vary widely, the underlying principle of restoring a sense of control is usually the same.    

In the first study, 76 university students (43% male and 57% female) were asked to write about a significant loss and how they coped with that loss. The type of loss involved either the death of a loved one or the breakup of a significant relationship. Some of the participants were then asked to describe the specific rituals they used to help them cope. Afterward, all of the people participating in the study were asked to complete a survey describing their feelings of  grief over the person they lost.

Of the rituals identified, only five percent were specifically religious in nature, and only ten percent were performed in public. The rituals took many different forms. Some of the rituals people described for grieving the death of a loved one included: "I washed his car every week as he used to do",  "I used to play the song by Natalie Cole “I miss you like crazy” and cry every time I heard it and thought of my mom",  and "I hadn’t gone back to her house in fifteen years. And 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."    

Examples of rituals used to help people get over failed relationships were:  "I wrote a letter expressing my feelings and I never mailed it. I  destroyed the letter and let my painful feelings go",  "I looked for all the pictures we took together during the time we dated. I then destroyed them into small pieces (even the ones I really liked!), and then burnt them in the park where we first kissed",  and "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."  While most of the rituals were private, they had a strong meaning for the people using them to get over grief.  

As a follow-up experiment, Norton and Gino recruited 247 participants using Amazon's Mechanical Turk to look at how these everyday rituals helped with perceived control and grief   As in the pilot study, the participants were asked to write about either the death of a loved one or the breakup of a significant relationship. Half of the participants were then assigned to either write about a ritual they used to deal with the loss. Afterward, everyone completed questionnaires measuring perceived control over their sense of loss as well as the extent of their grief. 

Results of this experiment showed that participants describing rituals reported a stronger sense of perceived control than participants in the non-ritual condition. As for type of loss, whether through death of a loved one or relationship breakup, there did not appear to be a significant difference in extent of grief or feeling of losing control. Overall, the results suggest that rituals can play a strong role in helping people to cope with the grief they experience.

In the second experiment, the researchers tested whether even a novel ritual assigned during an experiment can help people with grief. Using 109 university students who were initially screened to measure how often they used rituals to deal with grief in real life, they were then attended a laboratory session to conduct the next part of the experiment. To create a sense of loss under experimental conditions, they had the participants believe they were eligible to win $200 and set up a situation where one participant was given the money and removed from the experiment.   The remaining participants were then assigned to ritual and no-ritual conditions.   The ritual in this case involved the following steps:

  • Step 1. Please draw how you currently feel on the piece of paper on
    your desk for two minutes;
  • Step 2. Please sprinkle a pinch of salt on the paper with your drawing;
  • Step 3. Please tear up the piece of paper;
  • Step 4. Now please count up to ten in your head five times;
  • Step 5. You have now completed this task.

Non-ritual participants just completed a "filler" task and all participants than completed questionnaires on perceived control, level of anger over failing to win the money award, and whether they could guess the purpose of the experiment. Overall, the participants completing the ritual felt a greater sense of control and less emotion over losing the money. No evidence that the participants could guess the purpose of the experiment was found. 

In the final experiment, 172 university students were tested to see whether simply being told that rituals could be effective in coping with grief might be enough to increase perceived control.   Using the same experimental design as the previous experiment, participants were assigned to either complete the ritual versus simply sitting in silence with all participants being told about how rituals could be used to cope. As before, people participating in rituals appeared to gave a greater sense of control and were better able to cope with the negative emotion associated with losing out on a valued prize.  

So, how important are rituals in dealing with grief, loss, and disappointment? The evidence to date suggests that using rituals, whether the formal rituals associated with many religions or the informal rituals we can create for outselves, can help people regain some feeling of control in their lives as well as cope with loss. Considering the devastating impact that grief can have on physical and mental health, relying on rituals can play an important role in alleviating the deep grief of loss as well as the more mundane losses we all experience.

Based on their research results, Michael Norton and Francesca Gino suggested that it likely doesn't matter what kind of ritual people use to deal with grief. It doesn't even seem to matter whether you particularly believe that using a ritual will even be effective. That is not to say that all rituals are necessarily the same however. The kind of rituals people use to deal with the loss of a loved one can be very different from rituals to deal with other kinds of loss but the underlying principle appears to be very similar. According to the meaning maintenance model, people need to find meaning in their lives, especially after a loss that makes them less confident that their world is safe and predictable. Using rituals can help compensate for that sense of loss and encourage people to move on with their lives rather than dwelling on what they have lost. 

So, if you are having difficulty dealing with loss or disappointment, try using a ritual to mark the end of your old life and the beginning of a new one. You may be surprised at what can happen.

Romeo Vitelli, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in Toronto, Canada.

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