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How Rituals Can Help Us Navigate Life, Death and Grief


As Megan Sheldon was about to turn 40, she felt weighed down by a lot of grief and worry, especially while in the midst of the pandemic. “A lot of things happened in my thirties that were full of unacknowledged grief,” she told Tulip Cremation. On a family trip to Tofino, British Columbia, despite the cold temperatures, she felt moved to spontaneously head out into the frigid water. “I’m going in,” she told her husband and kids. 

“I swam out. I remember going under the water three different times. Each time was an acknowledgement of a decade that I’d lived up to that point and all the things that I wanted to let go of and leave behind.” Sheldon says the ritual’s greatest gift was helping her connect with the idea of awe and aliveness. “In the cold water, you can’t worry about what you have to do later or what happened earlier. It becomes this beautiful pause. And you just feel so alive.”

Sheldon is the co-founder of Be Ceremonial where she empowers people to create their own ceremonies surrounding grief, loss and legacy. She explains that a ceremony is a container that holds together a string of rituals, each one helping to tell a story about a time of change or transition. The key element of creating a ritual is having a sense of intentionality in the activity. “It could be the way I make my morning coffee every day, or how I go to sleep at night, or how I acknowledge something I’m grieving in the moment.” 

Sheldon usually incorporates nature into her rituals, for example writing words on stones and throwing them into the Pacific Ocean, or safely burning paper with meaningful words in a forest grove.

“We can look to ritual as this way of acknowledging the past, the present, and the future, helping us be more mindful of what was, what is, and what will be.”

For the past three years, Sheldon has gathered other care providers like hospice volunteers, end-of-life doulas, medical workers, funeral directors and counselors for a ceremonial swim with a vision of “taking care of the caretakers.” Together, the group takes time before and after the swim to share their feelings and acknowledge what they are grieving.

A simple ritual that might be useful to both families and caregivers alike is called “shedding” and it’s one of hundreds of secular rituals included in the Be Ceremonial app. Sheldon suggests that you think about all the things you’d like to let go of, and then you brush them off your body with your hand. “You’re taking some of those difficult emotions, like grief or anger, and symbolically moving across your body acknowledging them as you move. It’s remarkable how it can shift your mindset and help you feel validated,” she said. 

Creating a ritual does not need to be complicated or expensive for families or caregivers – the one thing it does require is intentionality, Sheldon states. “We fall into routine and we step into ritual,” she said. By elevating the moment with intentionality, we can create meaning by saying to ourselves, “This moment is really important and significant, I’m going to elevate it into a ritual realm by being intentional with what I say or what I do. I can turn my morning coffee routine into a ritual simply by thinking about somebody I lost and the grief I’m holding.”

Jonathan Bartels was a graduate student working in the emergency room of the University of Virginia Medical Center, a Level One trauma center, in about 2009 when he witnessed a number of deaths in the ER. But Bartels found there was a gap without a ritual that would help the staff process what had happened. Though he recalls a chaplain delivering a few words after one death, there were not enough chaplains to do so regularly. And Bartels was looking for a space where both religious and secular beliefs could be held. “Whatever gives someone meaning, they can stop and honor that patient and allow the family also to be a part of that practice.”

Bartels found that the healers themselves needed healing. “I was looking for a way to heal while healing others in the ER. I’d been through a couple of deaths, but I’d always noted that people didn’t always honor that last rite of passage in a way that was appropriate,” Bartels explained.

He said after a pretty dramatic attempt at resuscitation, he asked his coworkers to stop and take a moment. “There were about 30 of us in the room and I said, ‘Can we just take a moment to just to each honor this person in our own way in silence and honor the fact that before they came to us, they were alive, they had a life, they were loved and loved others. Can we just hold that space and whatever gives us meaning but hold it in silence and just honor this person and honor the work we’ve done.’” This was the birth of “The Pause,” a ritual that now has spread around the world from Australia to South Africa to Poland. 

Though now an RN, Bartels’ background had been a graduate student in anthropology and comparative religion and was interested in creating a ritual that would allow participation from all walks of life and held beliefs. “We didn’t have a secular or open way of honoring someone and really bringing that ritual into our work setting which was inclusive. I think that’s the most important part of that. You as a practitioner, you can stay true to yourself without imposing it on your patient or their vulnerable family.”

Bartels explained, “We all come from different faiths and different beliefs, that’s what makes the world a beautiful place, it’s a cacophony of voices and belief systems, and so The Pause allows for all those belief systems to sit together to honor and do the same thing which is honor that person’s life.”

There are variations of The Pause around the world but there is no ownership or financial gain around the ritual. Bartels says “You can’t profit off something like this and I have ambassadors around the world, and they take up this cause. Who knows who started this. They found in the Paleolithic period they had a way of honoring the dead. They buried them in a certain way. Maybe they were doing ‘The Pause.’”

Bartels says in all variations, the main thing is to remember that The Pause is a compassionate way to mark the end of someone’s life. “It’s a demonstrative act of compassion for yourself and for your patient and for their family. I didn’t realize that was the case until I looked at it years later.”

 You can find additional information on rituals for caregivers and families on the Be Ceremonial website, The Pause website, Alyssa Rose Healing Arts site and hospice pioneer Barbara Karnes’ blog.

Photo credit: Corrina Holburn Photography