I believe in ritual.
I believe in the power of creating meaningful celebrations to mark transition and to express compassion in a real and tangible way.
I will never forget the moment I read the letter from my oldest sister Dale, saying that after nearly 5 years of remission, her breast cancer had returned, and had spread to other parts of her body. I was paralyzed with fear. I wanted to call her, to reach out, but I wasn’t sure what to say.
Over the next few days, my mom and four other siblings – along with their spouses and children – made plans to travel to Denver where Dale lived with her husband and two young sons for a long weekend together. It struck me that this trip had to be meaningful; that each of us would want to say and do just the right thing to let Dale know how much we cared. I knew it would be difficult to express my feelings, and I wondered if it would be possible avoid inevitable family tensions.
I knew that Dale wanted more than anything to survive. And at that moment, I knew for sure that I had to create a special time during the weekend for all of us to come together to express the depth of our hope for her. I would plan what I know now to call a ritual.
In preparing, I read that rituals can create a way to focus energy for a specific purpose, such as healing, transition or celebration. I found out that in ancient society, ritual was used to carry people across difficult thresholds of transformation and that even today rituals can be meaningful signposts that point the way to human growth and change.
I learned that the detailed planning of a ritual is important. My first step was to set the intention or purpose, then to make a plan, choose symbols and even write an outline. It would be important for Dale to take part and for all participants to know ahead of time what to expect. I believe that following these steps set the tone not only for the ritual, but for the weekend, and fostered a sense of intimacy within my family I had never experienced.
We held what we called a “Fire Ceremony” that included all 19 children and adults. We met in my sister’s living room around the fireplace. We started by taking turns lighting candles, each one representing a family member. Next, each of us had prepared ahead a sheet of paper with a message, wish, prayer or simply a drawing to express our healing intention for Dale. With the understanding that fire represents transformation and that burning can release or send out our wish, we each took our turn to read, explain, or simply show her what we had prepared, and then placed our paper on a wooden skewer and into the burning fire. When it was her turn, Dale shared a drawing of herself in the future, sitting with her grandchildren – then bravely placed it in the fire to manifest what was her greatest wish. To close, Dale chose to play the song “thanks a lot” by children’s songwriter Raffi.
Afterwards, I felt as if old wounds were healed and past mistakes forgiven. I felt closeness with Dale and my family. I was proud of all us- especially Dale- for embracing the ritual and trusting the process.
I write this essay today to honor and mark the 7 year anniversary of my sister’s death. In the end, our ritual did not save her. It did not – as I had at first imagined – change the outcome of her fight with breast cancer.
So what of ritual? Was the fire ceremony nothing more than a desperate reaction to fate, tragic and inexplicable? Or, by taking the time to come together and imagine the possibility of recovery, to formally express love and support for a dear sister at an important crossroads, did we not enrich ourselves and the lives of those around us?
I believe in the words of Joseph Campbell, that “the level of civilized behavior in a society is directly linked to the practice of Rites of Passage.” I believe in taking the time to create meaningful celebrations for loved ones as they journey through life’s most joyful and difficult transitions; I believe that rituals are the touchstones of the human experience.
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