Rituals, Writing & Relief
How Can Writing Letters Heal Grief?
Mourning our dead when expressed consciously, becomes a ritual practice and rituals are incredibly important ‘devices’ to connect and console us as human beings. We are all familiar with everyday rituals, for example a particular coffee or cup of tea in the morning, or the way you prepare and get ready for bed. A ritual is described as a ceremonial act or a series of acts that are repeated over time in a precise manner according to social customs, protocols, or religious laws. The act of mourning is ritualised through funerals and memorial services and all manner of different death customs according to particular cultures and experience.
Humans have no doubt always practiced rituals around mourning and death and we can see this from the recording of life events in paintings, rock carvings, hieroglyphs, and in folklore.
Festivals associated with death are held throughout the globe - More on this can be found in Erica Buist’s book : This Party's Dead: Grief, Joy and Spilled Rum at the World's Death Festivals.
Death rituals may include ceremonies, funerals, and specific protocols for handling the body. Traditions can be simple such as holding a ceremony or planting a tree. Some will require the whole community to participate while others will require only close family members and friends.
Individuals or groups can carry out rituals. Most of the time, death rituals are associated with the things that are done in public or with close family members to celebrate and mourn the life of a loved one.
However, the solo rituals and things that we do for ourselves can be equally important and lead to powerful transformative healing from loss. Writing a letter, establishing communication, is one of the most effective rituals during difficult times.
At the University of Leeds a research focus entitled : “Writing the dead: remembrance and the written word” the research says that the act of writing about those that have died is a ‘compelling way to remember’ them. There is of course so much evidence to support this as a form of lasting legacy or remembrance. However, speaking, communicating and specifically ‘writing’ TO those that have died can be cathartic and healing and can reopen a connection to those that we might have thought had gone from us completely.
Maria Popover on the Science and Non Duality website says in her compelling look at grieving and brain science: “On the one hand, we lose people all the time — to death, to distance, to differences; from the brain’s point of view, these varieties of loss differ not by kind but only by degree, triggering the same neural circuitry, producing sorrow along a spectrum of intensity shaped by the level of closeness and the finality of the loss.
On the other hand, no person we have loved is ever fully gone. When they die or vanish, they are physically no longer present, but their personhood permeates our synapses with memories and habits of mind, saturates an all-pervading atmosphere of feeling we don’t just carry with us all the time but live and breathe inside.”
Benefits of writing
Many people I know and work with use writing as a way to express their thoughts and emotions. Writing is an amazing tool that has so many physical and emotional advantages, especially when dealing with the death of a loved one. Writing provides clarity and it’s one of the best outlets for negative and positive emotions. The British Association of Psychology states that ‘it can be helpful for emotional regulation and well as being a great outlet for externalising feelings. It can also be great for boosting your mood – positive psychology techniques, such as focusing on strengths or the positive things going on for you, can help to shift your mindset.”
Using writing really can help you to connect with inner thoughts, feelings and also something much deeper which is what I am interested in. This is something that some people are uncomfortable talking or even thinking about – our ‘spiritual’ side, our soul, our higher consciousness and as an extension to this, ultimately with our dead or those who have left this 3rd dimensional reality.
So, perhaps science can explain how the memories that are still stored in our brains allows for a ‘connection’ to be there still but I know through my own personal clairvoyant experiences and the many accounts I hear first hand of ‘visits from dead loved ones or strange things occurring about the home’ from families I work with, that ‘something’ continues after we leave this physical body. I’m sure that we all have the ability to find access to that field of consciousness where deeper connections to ‘the other side’ can be experienced, if we cultivate an open enquiring mind, a loving intention and an acceptance that there are things which we can’t explain with rational thought.
Now, we all come to an understanding or hold an opinion about these things which is comfortable for us, at our own time. I never usually talk about this ‘stuff’ unless asked, because my work as a celebrant is about being there for everyone no matter the beliefs they hold or the way in which they think of those who have died. Also, I’m not Mystic Meg (remember her anyone?) nor particularly religious nor am I about to go all weird on you – I’m actually quite a ‘normal’ person whatever that means! But I’m sure many people can accept that there are some things that remain ‘unexplained’ and ‘other’. Some of you may be more drawn to consider a continued ‘life after death’ because of unexplained or unusual experiences you’ve had.
However, whatever your feelings are about all of that, there remains an ‘unexplained’ sense or feeling of connection that can happen by allowing and finding a ‘still space’ within you and contemplating a departed loved one. There is a powerful vibrational force (invisible to eyesight) involved here. Communicating how you feel in thoughts but more tangibly in a physical letter, is profound.
In The Grieving Brain by Mary-Frances O'Connor, O’Connor notes that while Western physicians long believed continuing bonds across the life-death divide to be a symptom of poor coping with grief which makes for poorer bonds with the living, recent research drawing on various grief rituals and customs from cultures around the world has demonstrated that such ongoing inner dialogue with the dead might actually enrich our relationships with the living and allow us to show up for them in a fuller, more openhearted way. Our brains’ capacity to learn and change through loving others is what allows us to transcend the boundary of dying.
No matter what you have to say to somebody who has died, whether it's words of sadness and missing them or whether it's words of anger and recrimination, things that you wished you had said when you had the opportunity, it helps something to shift.
Doing this physical act gets those thoughts and emotions out of your brain and it recognises and honours the invisible thread - the energetic connection that we feel might be there, to someone who has died, despite not being able to see it - whether you believe it's your subconscious or conscious thought or perhaps just imagination or memory or something else.
Sending your words out into the universe – or the collective consciousness of humanity – or Source or God or the Cosmos – or into Heaven or the Summerland – whatever your beliefs might be, well, the process/ritual can release burdens, cleanse emotional baggage and help you identify your feelings, and even connect with the person who has died – if that is what you wish to do – its all about your choice and intention.
While you feel sadness and pain after losing a loved one, there are long-term mental and physical benefits linked to the writing process, so even if you don’t believe you can actually connect to someone who has died, you are still going to feel a benefit!
In her research on Grief and Mourning, M. Katherine Shear, MD states “human beings possess an instinctive mechanism for healing after loss, that is a component of the attachment system, the goal of which is to evaluate and integrate information related to the death into memory systems used to forecast and plan for the future; emotion regulation plays a role in successful mourning”
We know that supressing emotions and avoidance of ‘feeling’ hurts can lead to physical, psychological problems and ill health so it’s good to be supported to express yourself – speaking and writing can help our healing after loss.
Research studies have shown that writing for only 15 minutes a day for four consecutive days has physical and mental benefits. People who use this method to recover from any emotional upset can have a stronger immune system than those who don’t. Writing and expressing, connecting to those we are missing, can take different forms. They include journaling, poetry, story writing, and therapeutic journaling.
Using expressive therapy is a powerful way to work through loss, grief, and painful emotions as well as reminding us (if we choose to be reminded!) that in some ways we are still connected energetically to those that have died.
How do I begin?
How do you start writing a letter to a dead person. It can be challenging to know where to start. Fortunately, there is no wrong or right way of doing this. There are no rules to follow especially if no one is going to read it. You can allow yourself to be expressive. Avoid holding back emotions or editing yourself when writing. Now is the time to go deep and discover how you feel and this helps to heal. Some of the best lines to start a letter include:
This month has been…
When you died…
Now that you are gone…
When you were here with me…
I’ve been feeling…
There are a lot of different ways to start this letter. However, if you find yourself struggling to get started, you can always just write down single words. You can start by telling the person what you wanted to say or do when they were alive. You can tell them how your life has changed since they passed away. You can tell them anything that comes to your heart and mind. Be it funny, joyful, or sad, feel free to express yourself, there's nothing to lose and much to gain.
Liz runs a Grief Chat Café in her local community centre where there is a post-box available to place a letter to a loved one. There is an option to have it then read by Liz, left private, or transformed into an art work later in the year. The remains are then to be pulped and recycled with wild flower seeds for the garden.
Or you may wish to contact a charity in the states called: