Grief was not something we talked about when I was growing up. We were more of a “suck it up” and “move on” kind of family.
But at my grandmother’s funeral, when I was eleven years old, I watched my father grieve his mother’s passing. It was my first funeral and the first time I had seen my dad cry. I remember being shocked and confused. There was my dad showing emotion; he was sad, weeping, grieving.
After the funeral, we didn’t speak about it—not my grandmother’s death nor my father’s feelings about it. The message was clear: even if we feel something, we don’t talk about it. We get over it; we move on.
In my work at a cancer support center, loss and grief are common topics of discussion.
Recently, I was talking with a woman who is in treatment for cancer. She said she is very emotional and is easily moved to tears. We talked about the losses she has experienced because of the cancer and how she is processing her grief.
I told her I had learned about using ritual to process grief—from an unexpected source.
When my friend Jim was sick, his dog Detroit was by his side throughout his illness, and she was with him when he died. While his body was being taken from the house, I took her for a walk. When we got home, she ran to his room and just sat at the foot of his bed. She was grieving.
The next morning, she went into his room and again sat at the foot of his bed. She looked up at the bed and then at me, as if she was asking, “Where is he?” It broke my heart to have to tell her he was gone. Her sad eyes mirrored my own.
Every morning for the next few weeks, Detroit started her day by going into Jim’s room and sitting at the foot of his bed. She would look up at the bed and then at me. I would do my part for her ritual and tell her that Jim was gone.
Then one day when she entered his room, she did not stop at the foot of the bed, but walked the length of the room, turned around and walked out. “Just checking?” I asked, and I knew she had moved to a different place in her grief. This new ritual—entering the room, walking the length, turning and walking out—continued for months.
And then one day she walked to the doorway of his room, paused, and then moved on. Her grieving period was over.
She still occasionally entered his room at random times, but the ritual had accomplished its purpose—she had mourned and now she was getting on with her life.
During those months, I watched in wonder at how Detroit instinctively honored her grief by creating a ritual and then adapting the ritual to fit her changing needs. I was in awe of how she mourned and processed her grief.