“Will it be a tree or a new garden?” my partner asked me two weeks ago. For the past 15 years, we have been planting as a way to acknowledge and memorialize people and animals in our lives we have loved and lost. The question we ask now is not “what do we do to acknowledge loss” as much as “where do we put what we’re going to do?” With several explicit conversations, we have agreed that anniversaries of losses are recognized with the ritual of digging in the earth, planting, and nurturing growth.
Rituals occur in our lives on a regular basis. People have weddings, graduations, quinceaneras, confirmations, and bar/bat mitzvahs. We have funerals for people who have died, and baptisms for people after they are born. It seems reasonable for rituals to find their way into psychotherapy. Books and articles have been devoted to the concept of incorporating ritual into the healing process.
When we think about rituals, sometimes we are reminded of the repetitive kinds of experiences we have that mark certain aspects of our lives or identities we hold. Growing up Jewish, I have very fond memories of prayers and songs from religious holidays. Even when I think of them today, I feel a connection to family and community. There are other kinds of rituals that we create to ascribe meaning to some of our experiences. Often, like my experience with planting, they become rites of passage, punctuating change, accomplishment, or transformation.
So I Always Remember
Dennis was court-ordered to see me as a result of several incidents of DUI; the last one resulting in a conviction of vehicular manslaughter. He lost his job after his conviction and his wife filed for divorce. One of the terms of his probation was regular psychotherapy.
There was little conversation in our first session. Most of the hour was spent with Dennis crying. “I can’t believe this is happening to me. I’ve lost everything.” When he could catch his breath, he repeated these two phrases over and over during that session. I listened and nodded, never having the chance to ask him a question or to comment.
As our work progressed, we spoke more about Dennis’s history of drinking while also exploring the progressive negative consequences he’d experienced as a result of alcohol use. Still, our early sessions were focused on the depression that had developed and his struggle with accomplishing simple daily tasks. He was also accessing regular AA meetings and was meeting with his sponsor at least once per week.
After a year of psychotherapy, Dennis began talking about his level of responsibility for causing others pain. We shifted from his sadness to exploring how he might attempt reparation where possible. He went back to school, changed careers, and secured employment that allowed him to support himself and provide support for his ex-wife and their children. “I know I have a long road ahead of me. But for the first time in I don’t know how many years, I feel some hope,” he said as we ended one of those sessions.
Dennis successfully completed his period of probation, and made the decision to continue therapy even though he was no longer mandated. At the conclusion of his probation, he asked if he could bring his original court order and if we could go to Lake Michigan, tear it up, and throw it in the water. I had been thinking about some kind of ritual to mark an end and a beginning for Dennis, but he beat me to it.
Three years after he began therapy, I met Dennis at the lake. I saw another man with Dennis who I didn’t recognize. “I asked my sponsor to be here too,” he explained. “I hope you don’t mind.” I watched Dennis tear his court order in small pieces and slowly release them into the lake. I also saw him put a piece back in his pocket. He noticed my questioning look, and before I could ask he explained: “That’s so I always remember…”
I Need To Do It By Myself
Jack was in a psychotherapy group I was facilitating. He had been with his partner, Donald, for 20 years before they separated. For Jack, the separation was both surprising and traumatic. He didn’t realize his partner had been so unhappy. After his partner moved out, all communication with Jack occurred through his partner’s lawyer. Quickly, their assets were separated and Jack found himself living in a small studio apartment by himself—alone for the first time in 20 years.
Jack started the group several years after the separation, still reeling from the initial trauma. What further complicated Jack’s trauma, was learning of the death of his partner through a mutual friend. “I heard Donald had been in a car accident and died. Now I have no opportunity to talk with him and get any more closure about the end our relationship,” Jack said through tears and lips pressed tightly together.
The group tried to support Jack, validating his sadness and his anger. Still, Jack’s grief felt amorphous and insoluble. Toward the end of one session, one of the group members suggested having a “funeral” for Donald. “Maybe we can use a group session to have the funeral that Jack never had! We can all be there and we can acknowledge Jack’s losses collectively.” I stayed silent but thought this was an excellent idea! I waited, expectantly, for Jack’s response. “No,” he said hopelessly. “That won’t help.”
All of us left the group that evening feeling deflated. We each carried some of Jack’s hopelessness. Several weeks later, however, Jack came into group looking noticeably more upbeat. “Can I have some time tonight?” he asked during his check-in. Unbeknownst to any of us, Jack had decided to have the funeral himself. He went to the cemetery where Donald was buried. He created a prayer card. He wrote and read a eulogy aloud, to himself, while also expressing some of his previously unexpressed anger. He left flowers by the headstone.
While the group was surprised and happy for Jack, several asked why he didn’t allow the group to have a funeral for him or for the group to attend the funeral at Donald’s grave. “I appreciated all of you for what you offered,” he interrupted. “But I realized when you made the suggestion, having the funeral was something I needed to do for myself and by myself. I felt immediate relief.”
I Want to Burn It!
I began seeing Tommy days after he disclosed to his parents he had been abused by a babysitter. He was seven years old when we began and I saw him for the next three years. For many of the hours that we met, we engaged in parallel drawing with little conversation. Occasionally, he would talk with me as he drew, and in those conversations he told me bits and pieces about his experience of abuse. “I know why I’m here, ya know,” he said while scribbling.
One session as we were drawing and he was talking, as I tended to do with many of the children I worked with, I asked him if he wanted to make a book that included all the drawings he had made so far, and that also included parts of the story he told me. Tommy didn’t want to say the actual name of his babysitter aloud, so he asked if he could call him THAT GUY, which is how he continued to refer to him throughout our work together. That same day we began compiling his drawings while he also dictated a more cohesive narrative of his experience of abuse and, eventually, some of his feelings about it.
For almost three years, Tommy and I met in this way, though in the third year, his drawing became less frequent and his talking more regular. Our work had the primary goal of putting his book together until he deemed it “done.” For the final chapter of the book, Tommy asked if he could write a letter to THAT GUY. As we concluded the book, Tommy’s parents reported he was sleeping through the night without coming into their room, without turning on the small television in his room, or sleeping in the extra twin bed in his older sister, Janet’s room. He was doing better at school and starting to invite friends over. Collaboratively, we decided it was time to stop therapy.
As Tommy and I talked about what to do for our last session, I asked him if there was something he wanted to do with the book we had created. “Do you want to keep it?” I asked. “Or would you like your parents to keep it, or me to keep it?” He looked at me as though I was several grades behind him in school. “Of course I want to keep it,” he said. “But….I don’t want to keep the letter. I don’t want that in my book. I want to send it to THAT GUY.
Brilliant! I thought, though I wasn’t sure how we would actually send it, though Tommy had an idea about this as well. “I want to burn it!” he announced in one of our final sessions. “I want my Mom, Dad, Janet, and you to all be here, and I want to burn the letter! I want all of you to say something to THAT GUY. Then I want to throw all the ashes out your window!” I’m not usually a fan of burning things in office buildings, but I had to admit, this was a pretty creative (and sophisticated) way of sending the letter to THAT GUY.
In our last session, we did as Tommy requested. All of us gathered in the room while we removed the letter from his book. I suggested we put the letter in my metal garbage can, to which Tommy reluctantly agreed. This, he acknowledged, was much less satisfying than lighting it on my coffee table, but because he was 10, he told me he “understood the dangers of fire.” He did ask if we could throw the ashes out my window. We waited until the letter stopped burning and put some water in the garbage can just to be safe, and then we pushed the smudgy black globs of paper off my window ledge.
The Power of Ritual
Dennis, Jack, and Tommy all engaged in the process of ritual making as a way to punctuate a life event and as a way to release something that each felt was holding him back. I don’t know that the ritual for any of them meant they were done with the struggle. Dennis will always be dealing with the impact of his drinking. Jack will forever feel the loss of his partner and the sting of his exclusion. And as Tommy grows older, the abuse he experienced will undoubtedly come up again.
The ritual making and the ritual itself, however, was a way to process, contain, and conclude a chapter related to very difficult life experiences. For Dennis it was important to have a witness, for Tommy it was important to have participants, and for Jack it was important to create and engage in the ritual by himself.
According to Sun Bear (Gheezis Mokwa), Ojibwe teacher and writer: “When humans participate in a ceremony, they enter a sacred space. Everything outside of that space shrivels in importance. Time takes on a different dimension. Emotions flow more freely. The bodies of participants become filled with the energy of life, and this energy reaches out and blesses the creation around them. All is made new; everything becomes sacred.”
While there are no hard and fast rules about ritual-making or creating rites of passage, one key guideline is to consider that whatever is created holds meaning for the person or people doing the creating. As Jack explained to his group, what they suggested was appreciated, but what he really needed was to engage in a ritual of his own making. Dennis also had a clear idea of what he wanted to do with his court order. And Tommy was a ritual-making mastermind!
It was tempting for me to ask each of these people what, exactly, their ritual meant to them. I thought it might be helpful for them, and for me, to understand why the specific activities and people had been chosen, and how the ritual actually helped. Then I realized, it might not be important that I understand the meaning. And in some ways, it may not be important for these three people to be able to clearly articulate how each component of the ritual was healing. What was most important and most healing, was the process of making and experiencing the ritual.
I eventually responded to my partner’s question about our planting. “Let’s plant a pink flowering dogwood next to my Dad’s lilac.” Pink was one of my mother’s favorite colors.
“If I could tell you what it meant, there would be no point in dancing it.”