"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience," said the French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Such timeless wisdom bears enormous value for those who walk the path of mourning. Why? Because mourning is among the most human of experiences, and spiritual rituals are essential to mourning. Whether overt or subtle, bold or seemingly invisible, rituals come in all guises and displays, and they can bring new meaning and purpose to a life that has been altered by loss.
Audrey Boxwell is a Denver-based chaplain, pastoral counselor, and nationally recognized expert on the healing power of the mind, body, and spirit. I first met Boxwell on a "PsycheHike," a meditative hiking program she founded to reduce stress and foster resilience and team building. The day we hiked in the foothills of Colorado, some 30 women were mining soulfulness and new possibilities. What follows is my conversation with Boxwell.
Sharp: How do you define a ritual?
Boxwell: A ritual is any interaction that is repeated, coordinated, and emotionally resonant. Outside of our routines, which many consider to be rituals, true rituals are specific events that bring unity and connection into our lives by helping us connect to a higher purpose or larger goal, or find deeper meaning in the events of our lives. Rituals can be very grounding, particularly during times of change, which, of course, includes all of life's passages, from birth to death. Rituals also help us to make sense of and feel grateful for "what is" in this present moment.
Sharp: How can a widowed or divorced mom create new rituals for herself and her family?
Boxwell: Creatively and actively inventing new rituals can bring widowed and divorced moms and their offspring a sense of stability through times of transition. There are a myriad of rituals that can be performed within this new family dynamic, depending on your religious beliefs, ties to ancestral cultures, and preferences for creative outlets. Remembering to honor the past while integrating new family ideals can assist moms in this process--and it's especially important to ask each child to give input. One simple strategy is to set aside a specific day, time, and location for everyone to gather--a consistent time each Sunday evening, for example--during which the family blesses the past week and sets intentions for the following week. You could also ritualize the Sabbath--in whatever religion you practice--or the changing months, seasons, or commonly celebrated holidays in our culture and country. One concrete idea is to make a scrapbook of an event (for example, your loved one's birthday or anniversary). Give each person a page of agreed-upon questions to answer (what you mean to me, what I wish for you, etc.) along with blank pages for artwork, photos, and other mementos so that everyone has a chance to express their deepest feelings and wishes for the other. The finished book is a wonderful keepsake.
Sharp: What are your favorite rituals to help someone through the grief process, and why do you like them?
Boxwell: "Moving through grief" via a PsycheHike is my preferred activity and one that I do with grief groups throughout the year. I have participants hike (but mostly walk) to a designated area, picking up stones along the way to symbolize feelings of grief, pain, loss, hurt, and betrayal. Once we arrive at our meeting spot--which is usually beside a still water to restoreth our souls, in biblical terms--I lead a meditation and journaling practice. We end by tossing our stones of loss into the water, after which we summon the new in whatever form that takes, since we have now created open space in our hearts and souls.
Sharp: What if a person is unable or reluctant to hike or participate in a group activity?
Boxwell: I find the Native American tradition of making a dream catcher to be very healing; it catches the positive and powerful dreams and lets the negative and scary dreams pass through the spaces of the web. We decide beforehand what we want to bring into our dreams and what we wish to relinquish so that we may rest peacefully and lovingly. Dream catchers are traditionally made with twigs and string that are woven around a round wire frame and embellished with properties that are meaningful to us, such as beads, ribbons, and charms. A quick Internet search brings up many ways to make dream catchers.
Sharp: Can you recommend any books on the subject of rituals and grief?
Boxwell: Yes, there are four books I refer to often:
Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart by Alan D. Wolfelt (Companion Press, 2004)
Entering the Healing Ground: Grief, Ritual, and the Soul of the World by Francis Weller (Wisdom Bridge Press, 2011)
Power of Rituals for Women: How to Connect, Cultivate, and Celebrate the Relationships of Your Life by Linda Ann Smith (Power Publishing Inc., 2008)
Real Life Rituals by Karyl Huntley (Spiritual Living Press, 2005)