Creating Grief Rituals: It’s Harder Than You Think But Don’t Stop Trying
Four years ago, I lost my mom to a cardiac arrest. It was a few hours after tennis champion Roger Federer won his last Wimbledon title (so far). As a rabid Federer fan, she watched the match with the enthusiasm of a kid and even did a jig of joy when he won. In retrospect, I was lucky that I found the dance so amusing that I recorded it on my phone. It’s my last recorded memory of her.
Numb at the time and exhausted from the panic, the ambulance ride, the trauma of watching doctors trying to resuscitate her, and having to inform family and friends of her passing, I took comfort in time-tested grieving rituals. To be honest, I didn’t understand most of them. But the rituals were like traffic cones directing my grief-addled brain. Doing them felt like penance. Like I did something important and somber to mark the significance of the loss.
Within a year and a half, there were more losses — including a shocking, and sudden death of a close friend in his early 40’s. And every year, a few weeks before their birthdays and anniversaries of their deaths roll around, I feel a pressure build up in me.
When you’re grieving, your brain becomes the world’s biggest jerk and the best-worst investigative journalist.
Every year, my brain pleads with me to be different. To honor or celebrate their lives and legacies in a more meaningful way through deeply personal rituals. To immortalize the memories we built and the time we spent. And each year when the days of reckoning roll around, I feel like someone took the wind out of my metaphorical tire. I’m too tired to do anything but try and make it through the day.
For someone who isn’t religious, there is little incentive to continue to perform traditional rituals when they hold no meaning for you. And now that I’m not in a state of shock, they feel inadequate and impersonal to me. So, I make plans and they fizzle out. The next year, I make different plans that never come to life. And that’s not all. My brain also insists I plan for my dad’s and other loved ones’ deaths by taking more photos or videos, publishing their stories, and making every single moment with them count forever and ever.
Ok, I’m starting to see why I get so tired.
This is not a how-to article. This is more of a ‘I-tried-this-and-that-and-some-of-it-worked-for-me-some-didn’t-maybe-this-will-help-you-or-maybe-not’ kind of content. And even if one of you have felt the same way and would like to share your ‘grief hacks,’ I thank you in advance. Bear in mind, that grief is both shared and personal at the same time. What worked for me may not for you, and the reverse is true as well.
Here we go.
What didn’t work
Spoiler alert: They never got off the ground.
1. Planning an epic annual group trip
You know, like in the movies with a large group of family and loved ones. In my head, the trip would bring out a range of emotions — laughter, anger, tears, and more. There will be tension and resolution. Many times, overcome with emotion, I will squint off-camera and stare into the distance. And I will come out of each trip rejuvenated, wiser, and forever changed.
This never happened.
2. Starting a trust or scholarship
I kept thinking of starting a trust or running an annual scholarship in my mom’s name. I wanted to start a heart-health awareness campaign in her name. But I realize now that making these plans a week before her birthday doesn’t work. Maybe next year, I could start six months earlier so I have the mental capacity to sort through all the work and legalese.
3. Cooking their favorite meal
Remember, I’m just saying what didn’t work for me. I think it is a beautiful ritual and food can be very emotional. If you find comfort in making their favorite meals in their memory, I commend you.
When I think of food and my mom, I selfishly remember and miss all the amazing food she made for me, and not her favorite food. The close friend who passed away? He loved to eat and I have a recipe from his mother for an elaborate dish he liked. Every year I want to make it on his birthday but can’t bring myself to even pick up the recipe book. I don’t know why yet.
4. Getting a tattoo in their memory
In the show Friends, the character Phoebe Buffay decides to get a tattoo of a lily in memory of her mom named Lily. But she can’t stand the pain and chickens out with just a dot. This is me. I am her. I’ve come to terms with it. I have a low pain threshold and do not foresee paying someone to hurt me (I still secretly yearn for the courage to get one though).
There’s a lot more but I’ll move on.
What kind-of worked
1. A low-key visit to a significant spot
For many, there is comfort in visiting a loved one’s grave, placing flowers on it, and spending time at the spot. In our culture, we cremate and immerse the ashes in a river. For a year or two after my mom died, my dad and I visited the beautiful spot and felt some sense of connection with my mom. I feel it only kind-of worked because I still felt a surge of emotions that stayed unreleased.
2. Donating to charity in their memory
Every year, on the days my friend and my mom died, I donate to a charity. This action brings healing. It makes me feel that they are continuing to make some corner of the world brighter and impact people. But again, the actual process of donating takes less than five minutes online. I found that I needed to complement this action with something else that felt more tangible.
3. Learning a new skill
My mom was creative and enjoyed experimenting with different types of art forms. So, I keep planning to learn sketching or graphic design (some of my interests). But starting a new skill takes a fresh mind and an energetic brain — something I lack on her birthday. So last year, I started an online course in graphic design on a random day. Without the pressure and added layer of grief, I enjoyed the learning process.
4. Leaning in on shared experiences
My mom is the reason I love to read. An avid reader herself, she introduced me to a world of different types of books through my childhood. I remember many conversations with her about characters and stories — and I am grateful for that. I plan to continue that shared love of reading by buying a book on her birthday. It does not have to be meaningful, deep, or remotely related to what you’re going through. It’s just a celebration for the love of reading.
And today, on my mom’s birthday, I plan to get Girl One, a book I’ve been hearing a lot about. Even if I do not get the time to read it today, I plan to enjoy it over the weekend. I’m still working on a similar ritual for my friend’s birthday.
My mantra is, when in doubt, reach out.
1. Being kinder to myself
I cannot stress the importance of this. When you’re grieving, your brain becomes the world’s biggest jerk and the best-worst investigative reporter. If you were a celebrity, your grief-brain would be the paparazzi.
It digs through decades of memory archives and reminds you of all the crimes you’ve committed against humanity. And specifically, travesties against the person you lost. Remember the time your mom may have been sick and you didn’t help? Remember when the person you lost asked you to call them back and you forgot? Remember when you threw a tantrum as a kid because they wouldn’t let you watch Dracula? (Oh, do I remember disobeying that order and sneakily watching five minutes of the movie from behind the door, and then being unable to sleep).
My brain made sure I remembered. What helped is talking to people who understand how your brain works when you’re grieving. Reading helped.
2. Giving people their flowers while they are still here
If you love someone, don’t assume they know. Tell them, show them, and make sure they know in their love language. If you’re embarrassed to say it out loud, try baby steps. Throw a little ‘love, [your name]’ at the end of an email or a text.
What I do not regret is spending time with my mom and dad, and making time to hang out with the people who matter to me. And now, I make a conscious decision to try harder to make them feel a little more special on their birthdays, special occasions, and trips together.
An added benefit is that these good vibes come in handy when combating your jerk brain who’s trying hard to convince you that you never did enough.
3. Paying it forward
I still appreciate each kind word and gesture from family and friends, no matter how small. When my grief was sharp, I had shared my feelings of loss on social media. The outpouring of support from all around the globe was heartwarming. Apart from close family and friends, ex-colleagues, old classmates, and many others on social media kept me going when I couldn’t function or sleep.
Grief Hack: Having close friends and family in other time zones really helps when you cannot sleep. It’s ok to be selfish and suck up some of their time now. I just remember to pay it forward and be a similar patient ear for loved ones going through a similar situation. My mantra is, when in doubt, reach out.
4. Writing for the sake of writing
I feel better when I write. Turns out, it’s that simple. In the early years of my mom’s passing, I put too much pressure on myself to record memories, or weave my grief into a trilogy of books.
But now, the pressure’s off. I just write how I feel and see where the words take me. Once I’m done, I can publish it if I like it. But if I don’t, I delete it. It’s not written with publication guidelines in mind, or a futile attempt to game curation.
It’s liberating. I recommend it.
If you made it all the way through, or even skimmed this article, thank you. Even those of you who clicked but decided it was too long (and will never see this), clearly you are working through some type of grief. I hope you find the grief rituals that work best for you.
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