A grief ritual is something a person can do after experiencing loss as a way to honor their deceased loved one, process their grief, and let go of some of the negative feelings related to the loss.1 Grief rituals vary, should be unique to the situation, and can be done individually or with others.2,3,4
What Are Grief Rituals?
Grief rituals, also called mourning rituals, help people honor and remember the deceased, engage in self-transformation, and begin “letting go.”5,6 They might be formal, like a religious service, or informal, like talking out loud to the deceased.4 Rituals for letting go may involve a celebration of the bond with the deceased, which can bring positive emotions. Grief rituals that involve self-transformation help people reflect, identify negative feelings, and develop goals for the future. This can also help people process difficult emotions.1
Mourning rituals can be done at any time throughout the year, such as a loved one’s death anniversary or birthday.
Mourning rituals can also be done for all types of losses, including:
The Stages of Grief
Despite the five stages and seven stages of grief model being a common framework for mourning loss, they are often misinterpreted.5 Grief is a unique experience for everyone and people have a wide variety of normal grief reactions outside of or in addition to denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These reactions also don’t have to occur in any specific order.5, 7
What Is the Purpose of Mourning Rituals?
Research shows that mourning rituals can help people adjust to the loss, develop an ongoing connection with the deceased, and feel a sense of control.2,6,10,11,12 Mourning rituals also serve as an act of remembrance and can help create a connection with one’s community and support system.4,13,14,15
Here are several benefits to practicing grief rituals:3,4,7,17
- Promotes acceptance
- Provides emotional comfort
- Contains and/or expresses intense feelings
- Continues an emotional bond with the person who died
- Provides ways to connect with your social supports like friends and family
- Provides a sense of order and control around your grief
- Provides a way to develop meaning from the loss
15 Ideas For Grief Rituals
A grief ritual often involves a meaningful symbolic object. These objects can be physical, like a photo of the person who died, or nonphysical like music or prayers. Engaging in rituals of grief validates the loss while still helping the bereaved acknowledge that their relationship with the deceased can continue on symbolically.6
Here are 15 ideas for grief rituals:
1. Visit the Grave, Leave Flowers, or Create a “Rubbing” of the Cemetery Marker
Visiting the grave can honor your loved one and bring a sense of connection. Leaving flowers or other memorial gifts can be a way to remember something that they loved. A “rubbing” ritual involves placing a thin sheet of paper over the cemetery marker and using a crayon or chalk to rub the surface. Now you can bring the transferred image of the marker with you wherever you go.6,7
2. Share Photos of the Deceased & Talk About Them
It can be helpful to connect with your support network by sharing old photos and memories of the deceased. This allows you to reflect on the good times and start letting go of painful emotions.1
3. Wear a Clothing Item of Your Deceased Loved One
Wearing a special item like a piece of jewelry or a favorite shirt can serve as a linking object to a loved one and a way to continue the bond.4 It can also be used in a ritual of letting go where you dispose of the item in some way, releasing related negative emotions.
4. Create a Memory Box
Decorate something like a shoebox in honor of the deceased.21 Keep special items or photos in the box to revisit when desired. The ritual can help people learn to contain their emotions, experiencing them fully when looking at the items and putting them away when they’re done.
5. Perform Acts of Service in Their Honor
Think about the causes the deceased loved one supported or cared about. Consider making donations to charities or volunteering for those causes.22 These acts honor the deceased, carry on their legacy, and help you feel more connected to them.
6. Go to Their Favorite Place
Visiting a favorite place (e.g., city, beach, restaurant, park) you shared with your lost loved one can allow for a sense of connection and remembrance. It can also help you let go of negative emotions.22
7. Do Yearly Remembrance Activities/Celebrations
Annual rituals serve as time-honored traditions of reflection and remembrance.6 Consider doing something like buying your loved one’s favorite flowers every year or going out to dinner with all the people who loved them most.
8. Engage In Art in Their Memory
Creative expression through things like painting, writing, and cooking (just to name a few!) help people express and explore positive and negative feelings about their relationship with the deceased loved one.1
9. Write a Letter to Your Loved One
Writing a letter can help you feel more connected to your loved one. It offers you a chance to connect and pay tribute. Alternatively, consider writing down exactly how you feel and tossing it into a fire.4 It can also be a beautiful ritual of letting go.
10. Plant Something In Remembrance
Plant a tree or flowers to help bring your focus to the future while honoring the deceased. Perennials, for example, come back every year, giving you something to look forward to as a nod to your lost loved one.4,22
11. Use an Everyday Item of the Deceased
Using something like a loved one’s favorite mug for morning coffee can bring a sense of meaning, connection, and comfort, serving as a linking object between you and them.7
12. Create an Altar for Your Loved One
Creating altars to honor the memory of a deceased loved one has been a tradition since early civilizations. Many cultures and religions honor this practice. Think about what you want. It can be portable, or you could carve out a place in your home where you can have a permanent altar. Find a private space to put it that is not in full public view where you can mourn and reflect on your own terms.
Consider what you want to include in your altar. What reminds you of your loved one? It could be a photograph, a poem, something you got at a place you went together, or a memento your loved one gave you. Paint it or decorate it as you wish. You may want to add candles, incense, items from the outdoors like flowers, stones, or religious objects. Think of things that make you feel at peace and bring you comfort.
13. Light a Candle at a Certain Time of Day Everyday
Lighting a candle is a way to remember someone. This practice is done in many religions. It is a gesture that helps remember a loved one and offer them respect and love. Pick a time of day to light a candle and perhaps say a prayer or something meaningful about them. You can use this as a time to communicate with the person who has died if that feels comfortable for you.
14. Go to Their Favorite Spot in Nature
Spending time outdoors in beautiful places has restorative qualities. It lowers blood pressure, helps people to relax, and can lift your mood. People enjoy inhaling fresh air and reflecting on the beauty nature has to offer. Going to a favorite place in nature, perhaps a spot you visited with a deceased loved one, can offer moments of comfort and deep reflection.
15. Create Your Own Ritual
Thinking about the activities you enjoyed with your loved ones can help you feel more connected to them. Spend time brainstorming how you spent time with each other (e.g., going to the movies, listening to music, hiking); develop a mourning ritual around this activity.
Consider Inviting Other Loved Ones to Participate With You
Creating activities you can do with others to help while grieving can be a powerful and moving experience for all who participate. Sharing your memories of the deceased and hearing others tell their memories and stories can help begin the healing process. It also helps the person mourning to feel less alone and supported by others who share good feelings about the person who has died.
Examples of group activities that you can do with others includes:
- Releasing balloons
- Planting flowers in a memory garden or planting a tree together
- Doing group meditation or chanting
- Reading poetry aloud with others
- Sharing favorite stories about a loved one who has died
- Having a group of loved ones volunteer together at a place that had meaning for the deceased, like cleaning up a playground
- Unveiling a plaque or memorial stone honoring the loved one who has died
When to Seek Professional Help
Prolonged grief disorder (PDG) is when grief significantly impairs your life in various ways. If you’re still experiencing an intense sense of yearning/longing for your loved one and/or being overly preoccupied with memories of them daily for at least 12 months or more after their death (or at least 6 months or more for kids and adolescents), reach out to a professional.23
An experienced professional can help assess if other symptoms of PDG are present while helping you find ways to process your grief and re-engage in life. Grief counseling can also give you the tools to cope with your grief and a safe place to share without judgment.7
If you think your grief is prolonged, complicated, or delayed, it might be time to find a therapist. One simple way to find a therapist is to use an online therapist directory, where you can search by specialty (like grief and loss) and insurance coverage.
Grief rituals can be a wonderful way to honor your loved one, share your thoughts and feelings, and develop a new type of connection with the deceased. The best rituals are meaningful to you, so take time to think of ways you can develop personal mourning rituals that help you work through your grief and re-engage in life.