Navigating the waves of grief: Rituals to help young people cope
At the start of this year, my mother-in-law died unexpectedly at the young age of 54. This sudden tragedy turned my family’s life upside down and we have been journeying through the agonising road of grief ever since.
My wife recently shared with me how grief has felt like walking into a rough sea with nothing to hold onto. Just when you think you are finding your footing, wave after wave comes and knocks you over repeatedly.
It is one thing to preach and teach about grief when life is chugging along as normal. But how do we help others, particularly young folk, when their lives (or ours) have been shaken to the core by tremendous grief?
During my short journey through immense grief, I have found certain rituals have become my saving grace, giving me direction to put one step in front of the other.
It is Scripture itself that offers us an alternative language amid our grief: lament. Lament is a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.
While some churches have unfortunately discarded the communal practice of lament, many still offer spaces in their worship services for lament in the form of liturgy and prayers.
No-one knows how to act or what to say when faced with the atrocity of death. Liturgies of lament give words to our wordless cries. They tell us what to say; how to act. They name and order the chaos of our emotions.
The Psalmists offer us many beautiful liturgies of lament. Their cries of anguish remind us that we can bring our entire selves before God.
“Hear my prayer, O Lord! And let my cry for help come to You” (Psalm 102:1).
At a time when words can seem insufficient, the Psalms can be a helpful companion for a young person.
Because mortality is a universal human condition, we share in one another’s sorrow and grief.
In the aftermath of my mother-in-law’s passing, I wanted to hide away from the world; to be alone rather than with people. I was afraid of seeming weak, and I wasn’t in the mood for hearing weak platitudes intended to be helpful, but often causing more harm than good.
People have said some strange and unhelpful things in the aftermath of our loss. Some of them were downright bizarre. But people have also said valuable things, beautiful things. They have shown up and offered words that filled me up rather than drained me.
As difficult as it sometimes is to share our grief with others, the love and support that I have received from friends and family has been invaluable.
Grief is a communal rather than a private experience.
This is great news! News that grieving families need to hear. An ancient Honduran proverb says: Grief shared is grief halved.
“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
Our physical bodies tell the story of what we have experienced emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Grief has many physical side-effects: fatigue, digestive issues, muscle weakness, headaches, joint pain, and changes in sleeping and eating habits.
It is tradition in many church communities to deliver meals to the bereaved after a loss. This tradition acknowledges the physicality of what has transpired. The bodies of the bereaved have taken a beating, and proper dietary sustenance is needed to aid in restoration.
Eating and feeding your body is an act of defiance to the grief trying to overtake you. It is a ritual that reminds you of your ongoing humanity.
Often, in times when our lives have been turned upside down, the first thing that many of us neglect to care for is our physical health. Young people are no exception. On days that I have wanted to lie in bed and drown my sorrows in a dull stream of dopamine from social media, the best thing for me was being taken for a walk and fed pancakes from a friend.
The simple act of eating together and nourishing my body with fresh air and sunshine was the first step back into routine after being completely immobilised with shock.
“Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul” (3 John 1:2).
The Lord’s Supper is the one ritual that brings all the above together: liturgy, community, and physical nourishment.
Jesus entrusted to the Church one of the most powerful, holy and enduring rituals of grief the world has ever known when he broke the bread and poured the wine with his friends the night before his death.
Holy Communion is a reminder of death and resurrection. We cannot experience one without the other.
The physical act of eating and drinking the bread and wine reminds us that Christ is the Living Bread and Water that nourishes us in our daily walk, through life and grief.
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them” (John 6:56).
Leaning into grief
Let us return to the metaphor of being caught up in a never-ending bashing of waves. The only hope for survival if you get caught up in a rip current is to not struggle. Give up trying to swim against the current. Allow yourself to be taken out to sea, or tread water moving parallel to the shore. You’ll reserve your strength and be able to swim back to safety when the tide has relented.
The above rituals have helped me to lean into my grief instead of trying to avoid and numb it. It has not been easy, and the journey is ongoing, but through lament, community and physical nourishment, God continues to comfort and strengthen me.