• Neva Bryan

COVID-19, Rituals, and Grief


I’ve been thinking about the losses people have suffered during the COVID-19 outbreak. Guidelines designed to protect people have unintentionally impacted survivors’ ability to grieve.

Rituals can help when words fail.

Restrictions designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus have forced some families to postpone or cancel funerals, graveside services, and other rituals designed to honor the dead.

Rituals can help when words fail. They are the essential initial stages of the grieving process. Whether formal or informal, they help us celebrate the life of someone we love. They imbue death with meaning.

A ritual is a symbolic activity, sometimes public, sometimes private. Most of the time, funerals are public rituals that help people acknowledge the reality of death and present the opportunity for friends and family to support them as they grieve. Other death rituals may be private.

That was a difficult thing to do, holding my mother’s ashes in my hands.

Although we had a funeral and memorial service for my mother, I performed a solitary ritual to honor her. In her memory, several friends sent living plants instead of cut flowers. I used two of those plants—a blue hydrangea and a bleeding heart—as part of my private ritual. I planted them in our yard, mingling some of my mother’s ashes with their roots.

Though I could hardly see through my tears, I managed to dig holes for the plants. I sprinkled some of Mom’s ashes on the dark earth, then set the plants, and covered their roots with the remaining dirt. That was a difficult thing to do, holding my mother’s ashes in my hands. It drove home the reality of her death.

Now, years later, I’m glad I did it. Each time I see a blue bloom or a pink heart, I see my mom. She loved a flower garden and would be pleased to know she is giving life to one. That ritual once symbolized a burial we didn’t have. Now it signifies the cycle of life and death and love that never ends.

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