Ritual and Sampling our Grief

Excerpted from Swallowed by a Snake

Tom Golden LCSW

What can be done to help us in dealing with this instability? In grief we need a way to access a small portion of our pain and chaos. What is needed is something to slowly and deliberately chip away at the grief, something to slowly dissipate it's power and resulting chaos. We can remember back to the story of the flute player in the first section. The flute player found a way to take a bit of the belly at a time. The way that we can do this for ourselves is through ritual. Ritual is a way for us to consciously take a small sample of our chaos, our grief, and to process that sample in our own time. By doing this, we get to know our grief and our chaos a little bit at a time. If we don't get to know it in some way, the chances are that the pressure of the chaos will build and the grief will spew forth at whatever time and in whatever manner it desires. Doing the sampling work will not stop the grief from coming forth unpredictably, but it will dissipate the pressure, much as a release valve in a steam engine does. The steam valve releases some of the pressure built up in the system--certainly not all of the pressure, but usually enough to let the system function. Grief rituals give us a way to release the chaos within our system a bit at a time, using the powerful resource of our own consciousness.

What is ritual? Firstly, it is important to note that ritual is a very difficult concept to define. We can begin by thinking of ritual as being a part of our everyday life. We practice it each day, but many of us are unaware of its presence. When broadly defined, ritual can be seen as a way of moving from one state of mind to another. Saying hello and good-bye are rudimentary forms of ritual in that they move us from one state to another, from being alone to being with someone and vice versa. By saying good-bye to someone as we get off the phone, we are marking a passage and experiencing a rudimentary ritual that mediates the transition from talking on the phone to hanging up. It is a culturally-sanctioned mechanism that smoothes the social movements of our lives.

There are many examples of this kind of ritual, from mealtimes to bedtimes. These everyday events that we practice are a kind of ritual that helps us in our daily living. Think of what you do to prepare for going to sleep, for example. What behaviors do you use to move from your waking state into a sleeping state? Most of us have personal rituals that we practice in this situation, such as putting on certain clothes, maybe listening to a radio program or reading, turning off the lights, reviewing the day's events, etc. Waking up in the morning is another example. That cup of coffee or a morning run are ways of moving from being in a state of sleep into a waking state. One's entire "morning routine" can be seen as a personal ritual that facilitates the transition from sleep to wakefulness.

Grief rituals are both similar and different in some respects to these everyday rituals. One of the differences is that the rituals we have mentioned thus far are mostly related to habits that we have developed to help us in transitions. These habits, although helpful, are a part of our daily routine. In grief rituals, unlike our previously mentioned habits, we are practicing behaviors that consciously and intentionally move us out of our ordinary awareness and into the experience of the pain of grief. We use these rituals as a mechanism to consciously move into our chaos and our pain. Much as the flute player in the first chapter used his knife to cut a bit of the snake, people find mechanisms to cut away a bit of the belly a small chunk at a time.

Grief rituals are not esoteric practices. They are something that you are probably already doing for yourself in your daily living. They can be as simple as leafing through a photo album or as complex as writing a symphony. The important thing is that the ritual activity is intended to connect you with your pain and grief and allows you to move out of ordinary awareness and into the experience of grief, in a safe way, for a period of time. (for examples of rituals see excerpts [action] and [practical action]

Excerpted from Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing pages 30-32.
Tom Golden LCSW

Tom Golden is a professional speaker, author, and psychotherapist whose area of specialization is healing from loss and trauma. You can find out more about Ton's private practice here. Tom gives workshops across the country and in Canada on many aspects of this topic. His workshops are known to be both entertaining and informative. Contact Tom at the addresses below (email or snail mail) for inquiries about speaking or training for your group. You can also order his book Swallowed by a Snake: The Gift of the Masculine Side of Healing on this site or through Amazon.com


Tom Golden LCSW
 P.O. Box 83658
Gaithersburg, Maryland 20883
301 670-1027