Making meaningful rituals to celebrate the loved ones you miss
Commentator and author Molly Carlile AM says her father died more than a decade ago. Her family feels his loss keenly, but they always enjoy a strong sense of his presence over the festive season and at other celebrations throughout the year.
Molly, widely known as The Deathtalker®, says talk inevitably gravitates to her dad whenever her family is together. She and her siblings quote his funny sayings; one story about his antics is quickly followed by another as they speak over the top of one another, telling stories that make them all laugh.
“Dad was always the life of the party and he still is,” Molly says.
“As the conversations happen, he is there with us, alive in our memories, imprinted in our DNA, part of our greater whole”
Molly says noting the absence of someone you love through storytelling is a simple but powerful form of ritual. So too is playing the music your loved one liked, wearing something that belonged to them, setting a vacant place at the table, putting their picture in the centre of the celebration or conducting a toast to them.
Heading into the holiday season, now is a good time to consider what meaningful rituals can be embedded into celebrations “so that the memory of our deceased loved ones remains alive in our hearts and minds”.
“It is often amid the joyful rituals of celebration that the absence of people we love is the most profound,” she says.
“Our celebration can be overshadowed because someone we love is missing. How we choose to acknowledge this loss, amid the joy, can help us maintain our relationship with people we love after they have died.”
While Molly says she was lucky to have had a great relationship with her dad, but for others memories of someone who has died may not be comforting.
“Rituals are equally important when the memories are difficult, though they may take a different form,” she says.
“For rituals to be valuable they need to be personalised and meaningful. They need to connect us with our feelings and enable us to express those feelings in safety.”
“Whether it be a group ritual, such as memorial service or an individual ritual like sitting quietly listening to music that reminds you of the person, doesn’t matter. What makes a ritual valuable is that it creates a sense of connection for each individual person involved and this will probably be something different for each of us.”
Maria Nagy, grief counsellor with Mercy Grief Services in Sunshine, Victoria, has seen many examples of how important personal rituals are to healing.
She remembers a male client who adored his wife, supporting her closely as she died of cancer. Afterwards, he felt lost and found the pain of his grief difficult to cope with.
He found solace in Buddhist rituals, participating in prayers during a 100-day solemn memorial. He completed a dream house that he started building for his wife and added a garden which featured all of the flowers she loved.
Healing too came from writing a book dedicated to her memory, in which he described the strength and courage she showed throughout her illness and at the time of her death.
“Having finished the book gave him the peace that he craved,” says Maria.
She was also moved to hear about a simple ritual undertaken by family whose daughter was killed in a car accident. After months of grieving, the young woman’s extended family came together to remember her. They sat in a circle and listened, as each person told a special memory from her life.
Food can also trigger healing memories. Maria recalls a woman who held a regular lunch every year on the anniversary of her mother’s death.
Four of her mother’s closest friends would each bring a plate of her mother’s favourite food.
“During the lunch they spoke together with a mixture of tears and laughter telling their stories about her mum,” Maria says.
“After lunch they all walked over to her mum’s favourite cafe to have her favourite drink – a cappuccino topped with sprinkled chocolate — before they said their farewells.”
Food inspires memories for Dr Sarah Thompson and her family at Christmas. The palliative care specialist with HammondCare in Sydney, says her mother Margaret loved to cook. Before she died, she produced a book for the family with favourite recipes and poems.
Each year family members enjoy mince pies and Christmas cake made from her recipes, but part of the ritual too is acknowledging that “ours may be good, but never quite as good as our mother’s”.
Bereavement counsellor Kristin Bindley from Palliative and Supportive Care in Western Sydney Local Health District says sharing birthday cake at the grave site of a loved one can be meaningful for bereaved families. She knows a widow who takes her children to their father’s grave to share cake and talk whenever they have a birthday. Sometimes they also release helium balloons with cards or letters to their dad attached.
Kristin says more public rituals can play a role in healing too. Each year memorial services are held at both Westmead Hospital and Mt Druitt Supportive and Palliative Care Unit close to Christmas, which people from a range of cultures participate in. While not everyone celebrates Christmas, they are invited to take an item from a silver Christmas tree as a symbol of remembrance. This year, the tree will be decorated with red and gold hearts.
Participants will be encouraged to hang the heart somewhere that is meaningful to them.
“Some families have told us that they choose to place their hearts at a grave site or where the ashes have been scattered.
She says the ritual has given some families permission to celebrate Christmas, despite their deep sense of loss.
“It also becomes a way of connecting with the person who has died, both at a significant time of year and in years to come.
For some families pets and other animals form an important part of rituals.
Anne Henman, bereavement counsellor with HammondCare in Sydney, knows a family who had a toy animal they closely associated their loved one. The toy was often placed near family gatherings to symbolise the person they were missing.
“The presence of the toy brought laughter, tears and unity as the family reminisced what their loved one would have said and felt about various occasions,” says Anne.
“Sometimes they put a drink next to the toy in order to further include their loved one’s memory in the festivities.”
Birds have served as a comforting symbol for Nikki Johnston and her family this year. Nikki, a palliative care practitioner from Clare Holland House in Canberra, grieved the loss of three family members this year, including her beloved Nan, Nooksie.
Nikki says whenever wrens visit, her family feels that her Nan and great grandmother are with them. She and her family started finding joy and solace in the tiny birds after her great grandmother died.
“When she died they started visiting and pecking on windows; it was like they were saying hello,” says Nikki.
“And it started again this year when my Nan died. My Nana is very special to me and I looked after her when she died in January, which was very special.”
Nikki says she learned a great deal from her grandparents, so when she is having a bad time or working through a problem it’s natural for her to wonder what advice they would give. She says it’s amazing how frequently wrens appear in her garden or at her widow when she is trying to make a difficult decision.
The symbol is so meaningful for Nikki and her family that her daughter has wrens tattooed on her back.
“It really is a family thing,” says Nikki. “The tattoo is beautiful; it is a big piece of art work across her back.”
Like Molly Carlisle, Nikki is a big believer in telling stories in order to keep memories of loved ones alive. Whether it is cracking jokes, remembering who always used to spill the gravy, or explaining what they taught you, the ritual of storytelling helps her to feel connected.
“Talking about my grandparents makes me feel like they are here with me and not totally gone,” she says.
“You can’t touch them and that’s really sad. You want to give them a big cuddle and you can’t do that. But you can still feel that emotional connection.”
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