Professor, Dr. philos
Specialist in clinical psychology,
Clinic for crisis psychology, Bergen, Norway
It’s been over 25 years since I wrote a book about children and rituals (Dyregrov, 1994). This at a time when we, as working with children in mourning, experienced that children were often shut out from important ritual markings such as seeing the dead, being able to care for the dead, attending the funeral / funeral and memorial service, as well as that they were ill-informed about illness and death. Now it is not only children who are ‘deprived’ of a worthy parting, many people in the world are experiencing that funerals are shortened, postponed, performed in silence or otherwise disturbed by the ongoing corona situation. We do not know the consequences this will have on the mental health of the survivors, but what we do know is that it disturbs our grief. Grief rituals are important to us (Castle & Phillips, 2003).
What is so important about rituals?
Rituals and ritual acts serve several functions. Seeing the dead, grooming and dressing the dead, watching the obituary in the newspaper, attending the funeral, and having a memorial service, makes the loss real. Most people experience shock and unreality when death occurs, even when expected. Through rituals we understand that this is real, that it is not a dream, and the unreality is replaced with an increasing experience of the reality of the loss. We understand that life must now be lived without the dead. But these personal feelings are just one important dimension. The rituals also allow others outside the family to take in what has happened. Close friends and colleagues participate in the burial and other ritual acts for their own part, but also to mark support for the bereaved and by their presence recognize the significance of the person who died. The rituals provide time for reflection and understanding of how the dead have been present in one’s life.
The social confirmation
The social affirmation that we show those left behind through the rituals marks our support and care for them. We shake hands, we hug and hold, we shed tears with, and we can remember what we have experienced together. The rituals also mark our social and cultural community, we belong together, and they provide continuity and a safe structure around our lives. We mark our common cultural heritage, where generations have passed before us and others will come after us.
Proximity is replaced by distance
The corona situation disturbs the rituals. Proximity is replaced by distance, hugs by a digital meeting. Although not much research has been done on the importance of rituals to our mental health, research suggests that we do best when we do not shorten rituals and when we do not dull the pain by medication. The rituals are important early points in an oscillation between going towards and away from our grief. In the rituals we go close, we take in reality. They push us to what is called loss-oriented coping, but over time we also need breaks from our grief and reconnect to everyday life. This is coping by reorienting our lives to a reality without the dead.
What can we do in coronation times?
From 1980 on, there has been a change in many matters surrounding rituals. A characteristic is an increasing flexibility, e.g. in relation to the liturgy of the church. The design of both funerals and ways of expressing our condolences is more varied, be it music choices, what clothes the dead is buried in, online streaming of funerals, children’s participation in rituals, and a host of other matters. It makes it easier to introduce flexibility into the special situation that the world and our country are in now. From my background in meeting bereaved through 40 years and research in the field, I will give the following recommendations:
- Do not delay burial if you can. Although not many can be present, the realization of the death is most important in the beginning. The church can be flexible in that it can help gather small family groups that can stand or sit together, with the necessary distance to others. Everyone can come to see when the casket is buried or taken away for cremation. It is good if both close friends, external relatives and work colleagues can show their participation, but those responsible for the funeral / funeral must clearly communicate which rules apply regarding distance.
- Do not postpone memorialization to the autumn. For close relatives, grief will continue, but those who are more ‘peripheral’ will to a lesser extent have the dead present in their mind and may not participate if the ritual is postponed.
- Making rituals available through streaming, video recording and photographs can help those outside the inner family to take in what has happened. Also, make sure the funeral home takes photos of the dead if viewing the body is not possible. The funeral home must ensure that bereaved adults and children who have things they wish to put in the coffin such as letters, objects, drawings and the like, are given the opportunity.
- Look at the possibilities of organizing a digital memorial where those who would like to say a few words can do so. Here, the funeral home can work to find possible platforms – and perhaps also communicate the URL for this in the obituary. Spread info via social media. Both the burial service and the church / religious community / etc should think creatively and flexibly to see how ritual expressions can find new forms in the time of the corona.
- As long as the ‘state of exception’ lasts, it is recommended to create digital mourning rooms, use mourning protocols, memorial sites, chat functions etc. which allows the environment to show their support. It warms and relieves the pain of the bereaved who have to relate to their grief more ‘alone’ due to the restrictions that apply to contact.
- Remember that grief lasts so much longer than one thinks. Although you may not be allowed to participate in the funeral, there are no restrictions on the contact you can make over the net or telephone. Hear how the survivors want it, but you have to accept that they may not be able to speak exactly when you want. Then you can say that you will contact later. It hurts if you forget it.
Castle, J., & Phillips, W. L. (2003). Grief Rituals: Aspects That Facilitate Adjustment to Bereavement. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 8 (1), 41–71. https://doi.org/10.1080/15325020305876
Dyregrov, A. (1994). To say goodbye. Rituals that help the child through grief (In Swedish and Norwegian). Stockholm: Save the Children.