How Rituals Help With Grief

Reid Peterson
7 min readJun 28, 2020
Photo by Jeff Isaak on Unsplash

There’s a woman who lives across the street from me. She recently lost her husband to cancer. I used to see them walk down the street together. Her, a tiny figure with long white hair. Him, a shaved head and what looked like a disease of the spine because he slumped forward so greatly.

Now when I see her, she’s all alone. She walks daily and moves swiftly with strength and direction. She usually wears a hat and sunglasses, looking kind of like a celebrity who’s trying to keep their identity hidden.

The other day I watched her walk down the driveway, to where it meets the street, to retrieve her morning paper. It was lunch time. I was sitting in a lawn chair, having my highly predicable ‘pandemic’ lunch. I looked at her with intention and energy, hoping she would look back so I could say hi.

My family has lived at this location for over 3 years. The neighbor across the street- she’s probably lived in her house at least 30 years. You see, we’ve never spoken before. We haven’t encountered that icebreaker yet. But when I see her return from her walks, I yearn for a neighborly connection, hoping that one day soon she’ll know I’m available should she ever need help, with her grief or anything else.

She’s now a widow. And although I know nothing about her personal life, other than her husband passing a couple months ago, I do in some sense care about her. She’s part of my community. She’s not young. Her life has drastically changed because of her loss. She may be in pain and feeling very alone. I’m a Grief Caregiver. I know how to help.

The other day, my wife and I were relaxing on our living room sofa- just unwinding from the day and spending some time with one another. Day was turning into night, and it was that moment of dusk when the sky was almost purple, when I noticed something unusual from out of the corner of my eye.

Our living room window has a direct view of the house across the street. Sometimes I just stare out the window, with my gaze set above the neighbor’s house and focused on the trees in her backyard. There’s a beautiful oak- that’s big and bushy. And there’s a very tall palm that sways when it’s windy.

That night I caught sight of a silhouette walking on the roof of the house across the street. It was so strange that my inner alarm rang and a leisurely evening turned into a neighborhood night watch. Was someone trying to break in? Through the sunlight? I had no idea what was going on.

I told my wife what I saw and we watched. We watched the widow across the street climb up onto her roof, sit down right on the peak, and just stare off into space as the night grew more dark.

She stayed up there for maybe 15–20 minutes and then climbed back down. I tell ya, it’s a pretty weird thing to see someone on top of a roof at night.

There wasn’t much mention of it between my wife and I until the very next day, at about the same time- there she was, taking her 20 steps to reach her perch and raise her gaze back up into the evening’s atmosphere.

After the third day in a row, I realized that what she was doing was creating a new ritual. It was her unique way of grieving. And I’ll admit, I found it adorable. I mean, how many 70 year olds do you know who go to sit on top of their roof at night in the dark? It’s courageous, unique, and quite charming.

We all grieve in our own special way. Hers is partly by taking in a new setting; Looking at something different and more natural. Her ritual helps her be her authentic self as she grieves the loss of her husband.

Rituals are helpful ways to heal from a loss. They can also be powerful ways to express the emotions we feel during grief. Do you have a ritual that helps with your grief? Sometimes just doing something without thinking too much about it can really help. Rituals as simple as daily walks can make a big difference when feeling pained, stuck, or the low energy caused by grief.

Rituals don’t have to be big life changing events. However, sometimes it’s assumed that they do. Maybe that’s because rituals are often associated with unfamiliar environments or peoples’ expectations of their results are so high. Also, rituals can really stretch someone’s comfort zones.

But a ritual can be as simple as lighting a candle at a certain time of night. Rituals can also be created quickly. For example, when the shelter-at-home orders were put in place, I started a ritual of morning runs and walks to a local nature preserve. My intention was to move my body, feel into whatever emotion was there, sweat, and spend time in a natural environment. For five days straight, I started my mornings that way.

Something like this can be a good thing if it supports your Healing process. Some things, whether consciously intended or done with very little thought, are good for our mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health.

As people learn to manage their grief, they find themselves doing rituals to honor the person they lost. Many people end up doing the things they did when their loved one was still alive. Things such as singing a particular song, going to a favorite restaurant once a month, or a weekend getaway to a favorite out of town destination.

Coming back to my neighbor, I’ve been so curious about what her ritual means to her. I love how she lifts her gaze up to the sky. It’s so expansive and vast- kind of like a metaphor for expanding her relationship with her husband. I wonder if she had a star named after him and maybe she’s talking to him. Or maybe she’s replaying fond memories in her mind.

If I ever end up talking to her, I doubt I’ll ask about her ritual on the roof. The reason why is because she is so private. My grandmother used to say that some things are better left unsaid. In this case, I feel a truth in that. There’s a sense of sacredness in her experience and perhaps one of the best ways to support her is to honor her privacy.

So maybe I won’t ask her but I will ask you. What rituals help you when you’re grieving? Is there something you find helpful or meaningful to integrate the memories of someone close to you who has died?

One of my friends told me she likes to make pancakes in the shape of animals to honor her deceased father. She told me that he cooked a lot for her and her siblings when they were young. Their dad enjoyed it. And so did they. He made pancakes in the shapes of all different kinds of animals. His signature animal was the cat.

I got to witness my friend honor her father on Father’s Day. It was a joyful experience. She made a pancake in the shape of a cat. It was really cute and I had to take a photo of it. Check it out.

My friend’s cat pancake.

It’s important to note that many rituals are shared and others are not. Some people really enjoy a hike in nature by themselves. Some people may like family picnics. Both ways work to honor loved ones who have passed.

I personally ride a Harley to honor my deceased stepfather. He was a Harley rider and when he passed, I inherited his bike. I now ride it to connect with him. It’s my ritual to honor the memories of his life events, personality characteristics, and the hobbies and things that he loved.

He was also a woodworker. And many of his grandchildren received furniture as gifts at some point in their lives. It brings me joy to think about the times when a niece or a nephew has opened their dresser drawer and remembered Papa Warren.

If you don’t have a ritual right now, please don’t feel like you should. I personally believe they can help but everyone grieves differently. Not everyone will find a ritual as something that feels helpful.

If you’re thinking that something’s wrong with you because you don’t have one, please let that thought go. Replace it with thoughts that are more kind and caring to yourself. Life is complex and what does or doesn’t work now may change. There may be a time in the future when a ritual will have more significance or meaning for you. But when grieving, how you feel now is what matters most. Please honor that for yourself in any healthy way possible.

And if you do have a ritual, just know that it’s probably more special than what you may be giving credit to. Keep doing it. It will continue to help your Healing and make your grief more manageable.

In conclusion, grief rituals can help you feel more comforted, remember the loved one who has died, affirm the value of their life, and help process emotions associated with their death.

Reid Peterson is the Creator of the Grief Refuge app. Grief Refuge is a daily companion to help support people on the grief journey. Download for free on iOS or Android to get daily support.