Simple rituals can be helpful in recovering from a painful loss such as the death of a friend. In themselves, rituals accomplish nothing; they don't bring back someone who has died; they don't make up for the loss of a loved one, close friend, or sweetheart. But they can give a grieving survivor a sense of closure when nothing else will.
In a recent experience, my teen friends were confronted with the sudden death of a friend in an auto accident. I will call her Linda. The timing couldn't have been worse, coming as the holiday season approached. And because they were freshmen just starting out in the great adventure of high school, the loss of their friend came as a very rude shock. None of them had ever been exposed to the death of someone so close.
When news of Linda's death first spread, I received a phone call from one of the teens, a girl I will call Elizabeth. She was terribly upset and looking for help. I made some suggestions of things she could do. Reflecting on what followed, I am struck by how creative she and her friends were in finding ways to express their sorrow and bring some closure to the sad experience.
First of all, in an act of great kindness and generosity, Linda's mother invited Elizabeth and her friends to pick out the clothes that Linda would be buried in--a ritual in itself. They were instructed to pick out two outfits, at least one of which would have long sleeves in case there were bruises that would need to be covered. Since homecoming had occurred just two weeks earlier, the first choice was her homecoming dress. The second was a long-sleeved "Care Bear" shirt and jeans, the outfit finally chosen.
The night before the viewing, the girls decided to personalize this sad event by making a collage of photographs depicting scenes from Linda's life to display at the funeral home. Each of them brought pictures, and together they made a selection to include in the display, which they lovingly assembled. When the viewing was held that evening, those in attendance gathered around the collage to comment on the depicted events, to ask questions and share memories of Linda. It was a big success.
The girls also handed out red and yellow ribbons for mourners to pin to their lapels and blouses--red because that was their friend’s favorite color, and yellow because it is symbolic of peace and hope. The collage and the ribbons provided a sense of Linda's personality and spirit to the somber atmosphere of the funeral home.
At the burial, Linda's mother gave each of the girls a rose from the casket to be pressed and saved in a special box. Elizabeth and her friends cherish those pressed flowers as remembrances of their friend.
The girls also decided to memorialize the scene of Linda's accident, where a tree with bark ripped off stood as stark evidence of the tragedy. They took markers and wrote tributes to their friend on the side of the tree marking the spot where she had died.
The last thing the teens did was to purchase "Care Bear" shirts. They wrote Linda's name and the nicknames she had used for each of them on the back of the shirts. They wore them to school on their first day back after the funeral.
When death is sudden, there is no chance to say good-bye. Because that was the case with their friend Linda, the girls are planning on getting together one more time to honor their friend. They plan to write messages to her on helium balloons, take them to her grave, and release them there, symbolically carrying their parting words to Linda. They probably will do that on some special day, such as her birthday, a holiday, or the anniversary of her death. None of this will change the fact that Linda has died, but Elizabeth and her friends feel better today because they actively engaged in these loving rituals to express their sorrow. And there is a lesson here for all of us.
Futile as it may be in the face of death, doing something beats doing nothing. That's why we have wakes and viewings, funerals, memorial services, burial ceremonies, votive candles, and all the rest. They don't change the reality of our loss, but they help us express our sorrow, share our grief with others, and somehow say good-bye. They replace the emptiness of grief with a certain feeling of peace and completeness.
We are surrounded by rituals every day. Jewish boys and girls are accepted into adulthood in bar mitzvahs and bas mitzvahs--very important rituals. Christian youngsters go through confirmation, another ritual. We use rituals to give some order to our lives, and this is never more needed than when we have suffered a great personal loss like the death of a loved one or friend. Rituals don't change anything, but they can help.