Memorial Day 2021: Rituals for Honoring Our Losses
People around the globe have experienced unprecedented loss during the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only have there been millions of deaths worldwide but many also have lost employment, housing, social connectedness and their everyday way of life. We are going through a grief emergency at this time due to the many losses that continue to accumulate.
Here in the United States researchers estimate that nearly 5 million people have suffered the death of a close family member during this pandemic. And on top of that, our usual and expected rituals for honoring our loved ones—funerals and memorial services—have been impossible to carry out in person. But these mourning traditions are essential to us for processing grief and we need to find creative ways to carry them out even when we can’t gather together in person.
Perhaps Memorial Day this year can be a time when we not only honor the men and women who died in service of this country, but we also set aside time to reflect on the past year-and-a-half of unspeakable loss. Here are some helpful steps for planning a grief ritual that can be observed on Memorial Day or any other day to address all of your losses:
Plan a special time
In order to get the most benefit from a grief ritual, it’s important to set aside a dedicated block of time in your busy schedule. You might plan a time on Memorial Day for one longer event that includes other people or simply dedicate 15 minutes each day of the weekend for your own private series of rituals at home. No matter what you choose, be sure to mark the times on your calendar to set your intention to honor your grief.
Decide who to invite
Unless you prefer to do a private ritual for yourself alone, you may want to share this ceremony with others who would benefit from participating. An online platform like Zoom will allow people to attend who live far away but you will either need to know how to use Zoom or find someone else to help you. Notify participants of the date and time and make sure they know how to join you online.
Create a “Grief Space”
Making space for grief includes creating a physical space in your home to represent your experience of loss. A small table, desk, shelf or even a windowsill can become an “altar” where you can place special mementos. Some of the items you may want to include are photographs, candles, flowers, rocks, shells, possessions that remind you of your loved one, and other memorabilia like postcards, letters, ticket stubs, or flyers. You can use this space for your ritual and also spend time there each day reflecting on your grief.
Find a poem or verse to read
You may already have a special poem or reading that your loved one cherished that you can include in your ritual. But if you don’t you can search through some books of poetry to find words that resonate with you. There are poems available online that deal with love and grief by Mary Oliver, David Whyte and John O’Donohue. You might also check out these two books: The Language of Loss – Poetry and Prose for Grieving and Celebrating the Love of Your Life edited by Barbara Abercrombie; and Healing the Divide – Poems of Kindness & Connection edited by James Crews. If you are including other people in your event you might ask them to bring something special to read or a story to share.
Choose songs to play during your ritual that are meaningful and comforting to you or that bring back memories of your loved one. Again if others are joining you they might want to suggest some songs or create a shared playlist with you of special music.
Make an outline for the event
You may want to write down the order of activities for your ritual to help it flow naturally and let others know what to expect. As an example: begin with lighting a candle, then saying a prayer or blessing. Follow that with music, then a poem or reading before having a time for sharing stories. End your ritual with another song, a final reading and a farewell blessing or prayer. Try to keep the entire event under one hour if you are doing it for a group online.
Create your own “parade”
While many communities in the past have marked the day with huge parades to honor military personnel and veterans, those events may not be possible this year. As an alternative activity, you and your loved ones who live locally could stage your own small “parade” and drive in a caravan to a local cemetery or another place of special remembrance like a park or natural area. You could decorate your cars with flowers or photos and share special food together when you arrive at the destination.
The goal of creating a Memorial Day event is to mark the day as a time for remembering and honoring your grief. But consider also including a time for gratitude. Even in the midst of tragedy, there are many reasons to be grateful—for the opportunity to love those who have died, for the life that continues, for the beauty of the natural world, for all of the people who have helped you survive this year of loss. May you find the solace and healing you need to get through the challenges that face us.