Healing power of rituals

Posted: Friday, November 18, 2005

Hospice and Home CareBy Mary Cook

Five years have passed since I wrote my first article for this newspaper as a Hospice and Home Care of Juneau volunteer. When I asked HHCJ volunteer coordinator, Jean Jasmine, if she had a specific subject for me to write about she said, "Maybe you could write about the importance of rituals." I had a funny feeling she was going to suggest that. I've written on the subject several times before, so it seemed important to be able to offer a fresh perspective. I sent an e-mail to my amazing friends and family asking: Do you use rituals to memorialize your deceased loved ones? What is it about rituals that offer us a sense of consolation and continuity? Their answers, not surprisingly, were heartfelt and inspiring.

My aunt Kathy wrote about her mother and how joyous Christmas had been when they celebrated it together, just the two of them. She wrote, "Rituals may become a part of your life to the degree that you don't even experience them as being something you "do." Christmas will never be the same without my mother. I struggle through the holiday some years, but what stays the same is the ancient angel that sits on top of every Christmas tree, a burnt-out candle-shaped light in each of her hands. That and a paper angel I found at an antique store long ago. Someone had written "Marie" on the back, my mother's name, in handwriting that looked just like my mother's. My mother is my spirit of Christmas."

It can be so hard to find the joy when we are forced to celebrate without the ones who helped make it all matter. Yet, there can be some comfort in placing the angels on the tree - our hands remembering the way as we fumble for familiar territory. Rituals can provide us with continuity, some gentle boundaries. Our spiritual practices offer us this kind of security, in good times and in difficult times.

My friend Swarupa sent me a beautiful description of how she finds peace through her spiritual practices: "In Eastern philosophy ritual is used as a reminder. Many rituals were created around death because it is such an important transformation for the soul. In more enlightened times it was understood that death was an opportunity for the soul to progress. Loved ones offered their blessings and pure good thoughts to support the deceased on their way to their reincarnation. As humanity "progressed" and became more attached to their physical bodies (forgetting that we are actually spirit inhabiting a body in order to love and perform beneficial acts), they began to experience sadness, loss and despair upon the death of their loved ones. Rituals were created to encourage people to instead perform uplifting acts during the time of death, for a certain time after the death and then annually. In India, every September from the new moon to the full moon, people do rituals for their ancestors. It is the time set aside to offer feasts, tell stories, give gifts and chant for those who have gone before us. Interestingly, it is also the time to give thanks to any elder, your teachers, and others from whom you've benefited. Chants are offered for them and one might also write them a letter of gratitude. I love doing this because I believe it supports those others. It feels like a transformation of loss and sadness into acceptance and understanding that continuously uplifts me. I benefit as much as the recipients."

My dear friend Kathy shared a ritual that she began after the death of my partner, seven years ago. "When I got your e-mail, the first thing that came to mind was a ritual I did for three years on the anniversary of Jon's death. One of the blessings he gave was to make each of us feel important to him. He always took time for his friends, both local and long distance. It was one of his traits that I greatly admired and thought was an excellent lesson for me, as I often would not take the time to keep in touch. My ritual involved making a list of the most important people in my life and how healthy I felt my relationships were with them. Were there things I needed to get off my chest, phone calls I needed to make? And what did last year's list look like? Why had some people dropped off? Sheer neglect? This has inspired me to want to do it again this year. It was wonderful to make the time and just feel the warmth of all of my "family." I think that having a day in which you remember the best qualities of your loved ones and try to assimilate them into your life can be extremely empowering. I remember feeling like Jonny was right there with me while I was writing and thinking, and that I was honoring him by perpetuating his lessons."

Hospice and Home Care of Juneau offers our community a beautiful ritual at this time every year. The HHCJ Remembrance Gathering, a candle-lighting ceremony, will be 3 p.m., Nov. 20 at the Juneau Senior Center. Franz Felkl will play violin music for reflection and refreshments will be provided by HHCJ volunteers. For more information, call 463-6111.

• Mary Cook is a volunteer with Hospice and Home Care of Juneau, a program of Catholic Community Service.

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