The Gift of Ritual

In 2002, I took part in a one-day workshop on ritual as part of my chaplaincy training at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. The workshop was over 19 years ago, but it still impacts me to this day. In the workshop, I was encouraged to utilize my imagination and creativity and draw awareness to how transitions in our lives are marked by ritual. Workshop participants were asked to create a ritual to mark a situation that might occur in a hospital. For example, one group created a ritual for the discontinuation of dialysis treatment; another group created a ritual around the decision to stop chemotherapy. Many of us were teary as these groups shared symbols and prayer to represent change and loss.

How do we use rituals?
The use of ritual is fundamental to the human experience because it is our way of expressing a deep spiritual and emotional connection to the Creator. Rituals speak when we do not have the words or when we want to augment our expression of thankfulness and praise of God. Pilgrimages to Stonehenge, for example, demonstrate how important it was for the ancient druids to mark changes in the seasons, gather as a community, give thanks to God(s) for the harvest, and remember those who had passed.
But how do we mark the changes, losses, and hopes of our community in the midst of a global pandemic, when gathering together is unsafe? There are many possible methods to fill this gap, but one needs to be intentional, and make time for the ritual, even if it is only for five minutes. These five minutes might be the most meaningful parts of our day and connect us to something greater than ourselves.

Rituals & Creativity
Art, music, food, and other expressions of our creativity are at our disposal for any ritual. For example, years ago I worked with youth at risk, and there was one student who used to visit me often. During one particular visit, he expressed to me his desire to mark the death of his grandfather. I invited him to use my art supplies to create a memorial. He picked a piece of wood and glued a cross onto the platform; then he decorated it with colourful flowers and a gentle stream. As he created his little tableau, he also shared with me memories of his grandfather. When the student had finished his project, he seemed more at peace. He told me that every morning he would now be able to look at it this memorial and know where his grandfather was. This young student had created a morning ritual, and his creation gave him a place to remember his grandfather.
The above example is a demonstration of how one person, with the help of another participant, can create a very personal ritual of remembrance. And though, during these COVID times, rituals may need to take different forms, they are still possible to create. Larger communities, such as the University of Manitoba, can use virtual tools to enact rituals. At the University, the chaplains recently worked together to create a one-hour ritual to mark the one-year anniversary of COVID and the restrictions that resulted in the transition to on-line learning.  Elements such as music, prayer, poetry, a candle lighting ceremony, and reflections from a diverse group representing students, faculty, and administration, worked together to mark losses and share hopes for the future.

Rituals of Mourning
Community rituals can occur online through various digital platforms, but for those isolated in hospitals or nursing homes, creating a space for remembrance requires assistance from a spiritual care provider, or recreation therapist (if they feel comfortable). For example, in my work, if a resident wants to remember a deceased family member, we may work on a memorial by picking the music, prayers, and poetry; then I will bring a candle and conduct the service in their room. Bereavement rituals are guided by the person’s faith, belief system, and whatever is meaningful to the griever.
Bereavement rituals are also important to staff. In nursing homes, blessing the room of the deceased is a mourning practice for staff and a way of preparing for a new resident. Staff will often cut out the obituary and place it on a bulletin board to encourage remembrance and mourning.
Emergency rooms, also, have their own rituals. Here, staff will share a moment of silence when a patient dies, and then offer a statement of gratitude for the deceased one’s life, as well as remember their family and friends.

Rituals of Celebration
Not all rituals mark sad events. There are also rituals for life transitions that require celebration and acknowledgment. For example, the student council at St. John’s College created a virtual graduation ritual that included speeches, grad gifts, entertainment, and conversations via break-out rooms. This graduation was entirely online. It was full of energy and it marked the transition in an uplifting way. I have also witnessed events, such as birthdays, being marked with large signs, and sometimes even a parade of cars driving by the home of the celebrant, honking their horns in celebration. Indeed, new rituals are being born from our need for community in COVID times!
The creation of new rituals, as well as increased attention to traditional ones, have and are continually occurring in the midst of the ongoing COVID restrictions. Advent wreaths on people’s social media pages include pictures and prayers instead of treats. I, myself, have been using prayer and candles to help me with my own personal reflections as symbols of hope in uncertain times. At various times during the past year, candles were a rare commodity and I wondered how many people had incorporated them into their home-based ritual in daily practice.
Personal rituals under COVID have, indeed, increased and this should grant some comfort to individuals who wait for a day when they can reconnect face to face with family and community. Though rituals cannot necessarily replace the social connection that our spirits crave, they can do the work of holding us for now. And God willing, we will once again be able to gather in support and celebration as a community.

Create your own ritual! Here are some activity ideas that Helen talked about in a presentation she gave on Ritual.

Create a memory tree and write on leaf cut outs someone or something you miss and incorporate into a ritual.
Decorate crosses in remembrance of someone you have lost, to be incorporated into a ritual of remembrance.
Paint or decorate a candle in honor of someone you miss and incorporate it into a ritual.


Use candles to name the emotions you are feeling at the time you are performing your ritual.







Below is a reflection from the COVID commemoration ceremony at the University of Manitoba COVID day of reflection.

Unknown losses
Here we remember the unknown losses
Like the unknown soldiers who died, we do not know their names
We can not name all our losses this year
We may have forgotten, or they may be too many to bear
The unknown losses have no market value
The unknown losses are bitter to taste
The unknown losses can wound the heart
If we look, we search with our hearts then we can see
See the losses are unable to push us down with despair
Despair has no friends, but we do
Despair does not share love, but we are cherished and cared for
Despair leaves hope behind, but hope resides in all of us
There are many losses, but we are not broken by them
We will learn, we will engage in empathy, we will honour the losses.

Helen Holbrook has been a spiritual care provider for 19 years. Currently, she is the chaplain at St. John’s College, and works as a casual spiritual care provider at St. Boniface Hospital.


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