Why Rituals Matter: What the new science of loss tells us about resilience

Photo credit: Flickr user Rick Chung

Photo credit: Flickr user Rick Chung

Growing up, daffodils and budding dogwoods signaled something of far greater significance in our family than the arrival of Spring: Full Frame was upon us. For four days in the beginning of April, my mom and her best friend, Linda, would vanish into the crowds of the famed documentary festival, whose staging in Durham gave a whiff of the pending cultural renaissance the region would soon enjoy. Schedules, highlighters, and black tote bags in hand, they would see four or five films in a day, and more than a dozen by Sunday afternoon. 

Cancer was hardly a deterrent. One year, she famously timed her chemo appointments so that she wouldn't miss a film. For those four days, Duke Hospital's proximity to Carolina Theatre was, to her, chief among its selling points. 

My mom kept a printed list of all of the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture in the top drawer of a bureau in our living room. At the time, it struck no one as strange that this list was pulled from the Internet, and thus a mouse-click away. It was the age before laptops, after all, and she couldn't be bothered to turn on the computer when she needed to quickly confirm that In the Heat of the Night won Best Picture in 1967.

She was the only person I knew who went to see movies alone, and indeed, who relished the chance. It took awhile for me to feel the same; I tried it once or twice in college, and remember looking over my shoulder, afraid I'd bump into someone I knew, or else I’d pretend I was waiting for someone, for fear of being judged by the woman behind the ticket counter.

After she died, those solitary treks to the movies took on a new significance: my version of the kind of ritualistic scarring that men in certain parts of the world wear to mark their coming-of-age. It started benignly enough: a tepid venture out when no one else was free. But over time, the experience changed. The movie theatre became something of a temple, the empty seats on either side of me a pew. While I was conscious to pick only the ones that she'd endorse (film being the one domain about which my mom could be said to be a snob), the movie itself hardly mattered. 

We’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about rituals in all their forms—those with centuries of history, like Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos and Japan’s lantern-lighting festival, and those of our own making—as part of an event series we’re doing on “Finding What Feeds Us”. 

Last week, The Atlantic ran an article by writer Emily Esfahani Smith, reporting on a 2013 study examining the impact of rituals on grief, conducted by two Harvard Business School researchers. The researchers began by trying to understand how people coped with loss, whether in the form of a break-up or a death. Defined in the study as a "symbolic behavior performed to induce some desired effect," the rituals tended to be personal—bearing some relation to the experience or to the person they’d lost. They were mostly performed privately, and except in rare instances, they had nothing to do with religion. 

The researchers found that these kinds of rituals lessened feelings of grief and produced a heightened sense of control: participants were less likely to endorse statements like “I feel that life is empty without this person,” or “Memories of this person upset me,” and felt less helpless than did their non-ritual-performing counterparts. Moreover, they found that the act of performing a ritual—even one without any apparent meaning—could produce the same results. 

The study tells of a woman who washes her husband's car each week, as he once did. And another person who goes to the hairdresser on the first Saturday of the month, continuing a tradition begun with a woman who'd died 15 years before (whether a partner, a friend, a parent, it doesn't say).

What's striking is that these rituals exist outside the bounds of anniversaries and birthdays, of Mother's Days and Father's Days and holidays—those yearly occasions when we sanction rituals, and give people a pass for public acts of remembrance. And they’re evidence that rituals, rather than signaling that someone has yet to move on, or is otherwise stuck in a narrative of loss, are actually a means through which we move forward. 

Today, I feel more connected to my mom than I have in years, even as—seven years later—the once visceral pain of her absence has faded. It’s a change I attribute not to time, or to finally reaching “acceptance”—that last purported phase among our traditional demarcations of grief. It’s because she would have loved 20 Feet From Stardom. And because this year’s crop of Oscar flicks was the best in years. And it’s because I spent many hours watching each one alone in a movie theatre. 

Posted on March 18, 2014 and filed under Rituals.