In the past, I questioned the value of certain rituals. A woman from Panama showed me how these may provide comfort to those who have lost a loved one.
In some cultures, death is filled with rituals. In Judaism, the phrase “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” is said during the seven-day mourning period called Shiva. Hindu death rituals include a funeral pyre and cremation. In Mexico, gifts of candies are given to the departed and a celebration ensues. The practice of lighting candles is seen across many cultures to pay tribute to the dead.
As someone who prides herself in behaving with reason and conscious individualism, rituals seemed meaningless to me. I told myself they were just another example of falling into the trap of conformity and absolved individuals of any responsibility to share emotion. This perspective changed for me one day in Eastern Panama.
During college I volunteered with a group called “Global Brigades” which works to create sustainable healthcare solutions in underserved villages internationally. At the end of our trip, we were invited into the home of a local Panamanian woman. Inside her house, I noticed a line of ants scurrying towards a single spot in the corner of the room. My gaze followed the ants to a small bowl of rice. Leftover dinner perhaps? No, it seemed too purposeful. Besides, the likelihood that our host would leave her home spotless for her foreign visitors except for a small bowl of rice seemed doubtful. I timidly asked why it was there.
She explained that her father died a few weeks ago after a prolonged illness. When all the rice was gone, the mourning period was over, and her father’s spirit was at rest and had returned to nature. I contemplated the simplicity and beauty of this tradition. I can’t say for certain why this ritual sat differently with me than any others I’d heard of or experienced before, but it changed my perspective.
The end of life and death are filled with uncertainty and ritual may bring comfort. After an earth-shattering experience such as the death of a loved one, it’s easy to feel that all control is lost. Even getting up in the morning can seem overwhelming when every part of your day was intricately tied with that person. Knowing what to do without the presence of that person can be a source of comfort and control in a time that it is so desperately needed.
It’s important for clinicians to be aware of the comfort and healing that rituals may bring to those coping with loss and grief.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.