Private Ritual for the Death of a Parent

We don’t do grief.

~Joan Didion

For most of us, talking about how we feel is difficult, and doubly so when we are grieving. We are in pain, often combined from sorrow and anger to varying levels, and we are alienated from others because of that pain. We may feel guilty, with lots of unfinished business we didn’t have time to take care of in our relationship. Or we may not feel much of anything at all; it’s too distant. People avoid us, or are deeply awkward in our presence. Social niceties encourage us to make it easier on them, which is exhausting, so instead we project a sense of calm, or of not needing sympathy, or of having ‘moved on’ – as if the death of our mother or father was a minor part of our lives.

As I write this article, my grandmother is dying and my mother and I are having long conversations about how she is processing – or not – her grief. My grandmother was not a very nice person for most of my mother’s lifetime, which damaged my mother in many ways. Not surprisingly my relationship with my mother was influenced by this damage. These issues are actively being presented to us in the here and now.

The death of a parent has a profound influence on us. With their death, we become the oldest in the family, we become the adults, we become the next in line to die. This article began as a straightforward ritual: outline, words, symbols; but as I am working with her I realize that grieving takes place in stages, and so our rituals must also take place in different places and times.

You think that their

dying is the worst

thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead.

~Donald Hall (M&S, p.6)

We grieve in the moment, we grieve while making funeral arrangements and arguing over who gets the tea towels. We grieve when we are alone, we grieve at the funeral. But it’s not enough. Grief is truly what happens when everyone has gone home; when you’ve thanked everyone for their help. Grief begins when we are once again alone, asking ‘now what?’

I had the privilege of seeing Sir Ian McKellan play King Lear several years ago. This play is about a man who has everything, and loses it all. There is an iconic moment in Act V when Lear walks on stage carrying his dead daughter in his arms. He staggers under the burden, almost falling, but refusing to drop her until he lays her gently down. Grief is heavy, it is unbearable, it is different for everyone of us.  Some people find losing a parent bearable, sad but not devastating; others are crippled by their pain.

They make adjustments in their life to cope with the burden of grief. Life is details: the stories that families write come from growing up together, sharing meals, and experiences. Death wrenches those details away. What is left is pain.

I didn’t write a single ritual, I wrote five, each designed for a different stage of the grief cycle. You may wish to alter their form or content, or repeat one or several, or never do another. As I said, grief is individual and you know your needs best.

To create sacred space, physically clean the area you are going to use and then set it up with the items you will be using in the ritual. Cleanse yourself, consciously relaxing and letting as much of your negative emotions go. (Showers are great for this.)

Face east and imagine a door opening. Say “I call upon the powers of Air to guide me and inspire me.

Face south and imagine a door opening. Say “I call upon the powers of Fire to give me the energy to complete this task.

Face west and imagine a door opening. Say “I call upon the powers of Water to support me emotionally and help me understand my psyche.

Face North and imagine a door opening. Say “I call upon the powers of Earth to strength and ground me.

See a sphere forming around you, enclosing you and your ritual space completely. Say “As above, so below, I stand between the worlds and beyond the bounds of time.”

To open the circle, bow to the four directions, and imagine the sphere dissolving, saying “I thank the Powers of Air (Fire, Water, Earth) for their presence here. Go if you must, stay if you will. Blessed be.”

Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.

~C.S. Lewis

Accept Your Grief

Grieving can be frustrating. It is upsetting to be so upset; it’s hard to be discombobulated by something as intangible as emotions. Thus a major component of the grieving process is learning to accept that we are grieving and allow it to run its course. I’m a firm believer in praying “Please let me learn this lesson quickly so I can move on” and the loss of a parent is definitely a Cosmic Lesson. There is no use in your feeling terrible because you feel terrible; this ritual can help you accept that you are grieving.

  • Choose a time when you will be alone and uninterrupted. Have a good sized mirror nearby, as well as tissues and a glass of water.
  • Create sacred space. This can be done formally or informally, with as much detail as you require.
  • Meditate on the quality of your grief, of your pain.
  • When you are ready, look at yourself in the mirror. Say “I am <name your feelings>.” If it seems appropriate to shout it, do so. If you want to curse, or ramble on, go ahead.
  • Do your best to name as much of what you are feeling. (You may want to journal this. If you do, make sure you talk aloud – you need to hear how you feel.)
  • Promise to take care of yourself.
  • Promise not to let anyone tell you how you should feel.
  • Promise to respect your feelings.
  • Create a self care plan to support you through this time. (You know best what you need, but I suggest making sure your plan includes extra sleep, quiet time, and plenty of distractions [jigsaw puzzles are ideal] when you need them.)
  • When you are ready, take several deep breaths. Drink your water.
  • Open the circle.

You may want to hold a stone during the ritual, and then carry it around with you to help you remember to respect your feelings. Good stone types include: amethyst, apache tears, jasper, and sodalite. Some people may prefer to use rose quartz or hematite.

Forgive Others

Long after your parent is laid to rest, you’ll be dealing with others’ awkwardness and insensitivity and during the emotionally draining period near the end you will find yourself extra-sensitive to the emotional wobbles within the people around you. It is a time when many decisions must be made, and that leads, almost inevitably, to disagreements. Much of the tension will arise from poor communication, but it will also come from the need of others to do something – anything – to fix the situation, rather than letting your grief run its course.

  • Choose a time when you will be alone and uninterrupted.
  • Create sacred space. I strongly recommend having an image of Buddha or Tara to contemplate – their loving compassion is the energy you want to manifest.
  • Sit comfortably in a chair, with your back upright, and your feet flat on the floor. Breathe slowly, deeply and rhythmically for at least five minutes. Don’t hurry this exercise. Let your body and breath slow to a peaceful, comfortable rhythm before going further. You want to be as relaxed as you can be.
  • Imagine yourself surrounded by a thick, warm, blanket or shawl. Let it settle softly about you, comforting and protecting you within its thick folds. Feel yourself snuggling into it, feeling safe and warmed.
  • Visualize that the person that you are having difficulty with is sitting across from you. They are not allowed to speak to you or touch you without your permission or an invitation to do so. As clearly as you can, tell them your truth. Tell them about your anger, your pain, the hurt that you feel. Stay as centered on your own feelings and pain as you can. Say everything you need to say, leaving nothing back. End by saying:
  • <full name>, I forgive you for the pain you brought to me, whether real or imagined, deliberate or unintentional.
  • Breathe deeply and release your hurt. Give yourself permission to feel hurt in future situations, but promise to let it go so it doesn’t stagnate within. You may wish to offer a personal prayer to Buddha or Tara.
  • Stay within this feeling of safety as long as you wish.
  • When you are finished, imagine the blanket melting into your body, becoming an invisible shield to support you from the idiocy of others.
  • Open the circle.

Dealing with the Pictures in Your Head

The death of a parent is usually accompanied by many difficult scenes – hospital room tableaux, arguments, quiet time spent looking at their face, last requests, bad news, smells. Even if you weren’t present when s/he dies, your brain will make an image of it, perhaps one that is even worse than reality. Many of us in the grief process will also be reluctant to talk about the dead, either because we don’t want to remind others of our grief, or because we don’t want to violate the powerful superstition to not speak ill of the dead. This keeps the images in our head strong and vibrant.

For this ritual, you want to do some research and preparation. Find out as much as you can about how your parent died (if you weren’t there); write down in as much detail as possible what you can remember about the difficult scenes. Write it all out.

  • Choose a time when you will be alone and uninterrupted.
  • Have a fire-proof container, matches, and be prepared to put out a fire (just in case).
  • Have a bunch of cheap paper, a pen, and a bunch of beautiful paper (you may also want to have a really nice pen).
  • Create sacred space.
  • Document everything you can about the pictures in your head. What evokes them? What don’t you know? What is the worst thing about them? Use the cheap paper.
  • Spend as much time as you need documenting the worst you possibly can.
  • When you are ready, burn the pages.
  • Think about that scenario and reframe it in a more positive light. You don’t have to make it sweetness and light, but a few changes will often make a big difference in how awful the scene made you feel.
  • Write that new scenario on the gorgeous paper.

Releasing Anger

For those of us who were abused by or had extremely difficult relations with our parents, their death comes with particularly mixed emotions. Eventually you may settle on rage as your primary emotion. Anger can be cleansing and supportive, but rage tends to be destructive. I offer this ritual as a way to process that emotion.

  • Choose a time when you will be alone and uninterrupted.
  • Have to hand a red candle, cheap writing paper and pen, very nice writing paper (and perhaps a really nice pen), a white candle, a fire-proof container, and matches.
  • Create sacred space: face the east, and call upon the air to help you express your rage clearly. Face the south, and call upon fire to help your rage burn up and out of you. Face the west, and call upon the water to help your emotions flow freely within the circle, cleansing your spirit and restoring yourself. Face the north, and call upon the earth to allow you to safely ground your rage, and to sustain and support your through the releasing process. As you call the directions, visualize a circle of white light forming around your working space, shielding you and protecting you with the elements you’ve called in.
  • The Goddess Kali is particularly appropriate for this ritual, but if you haven’t worked with her before, then I recommend Sekhmet, Nemesis, or Lyssa.
  • Light the red candle and begin to write or draw your rage on the cheap paper. Focus on making the issues clear and how what happened made you feel; avoid paying attention to the the other person’s guilt or motivations. Using “I” statements helps here.
  • Next, hold the paper between your hands, focus your awareness on the red candle, and begin to chant, shout, scream, or make whatever sounds help you to feel the rage come up and leave you. Send the rage into the red candle, watching the flames burn brighter and hotter as the force of your anger fuels them.
  • When you feel you’ve released as much rage as you can, burn the papers.
  • Light the white candle.
  • Shift your focus to feeling calm and at peace. As you do so, write or draw on the fine paper your strengths, those qualities which are wonderful about your self.
  • When you are finished, read or describe those qualities aloud. Speak in the present tense and acknowledge your strength, your beauty, your intelligence.
  • Open the circle (let the candles burn out).

A really quick and dirty (non ritual) version of this (with thanks to the authors of About Grief for the idea) is to turn on your vacuum cleaner and scream and shout while cleaning up. This is an excellent cathartic mechanism if you just need to blow off some steam.

A Ritual Script for the Conversation You Never Had

Many of us have difficult relationships with our parents; many of us don’t get the chance to heal those relationships or even find a sense of being able to move on and past those problems. Death is the final barrier to closure, and our grieving process can be prolonged by guilt and a re-emergence of memories of those long-buried pains. We may find ourselves fiercely angry, or deeply ashamed. As hard as it might seem while we are feeling this way, the keys to integrating our emotions lie first in expressing, then in understanding, and finally in forgiving.

  • Choose a time when you will be alone and uninterrupted.
  • Place an extra chair and a picture of the deceased across from you. (You may also want to have a glass of water, you’re going to be talking a lot.)
  • Create sacred space.
  • Start talking. Explain what happened. Tell them how you feel. Tell them what they did wrong. Go ahead and express whatever emotion seems appropriate in the moment. Mock them. Cuss them out. Really get into it.
  • At some point you’ll realize you are repeating yourself. When you do, take a break. Stand up, walk around, do jumping jacks or anything that gets your blood moving a bit.
  • Sit down again, and tell the story again, only this time talk about what you learned from it. Try to avoid being cynical – you want to find the positive and bring it into the circle.
  • Now tell a story about a shared experience that makes you laugh and regard the deceased fondly. This is as much a part of your experience as the negative.
  • Say aloud “<full name>, I forgive you for the pain you brought to me, whether real or imagined, deliberate or unintentional.”
  • Open the circle.

I find myself drawn to specific rituals within the larger world, most notably those from the Jewish tradition. I offer them to you to incorporate into your own rituals as you see fit: upon hearing of a loved one’s death, grief is expressed by tearing one’s clothing. That torn clothing is worn for the seven days following (shiva is the term, it is Hebrew for ‘seven’). During that time mirrors are covered and mourners grieve intensely by not going to work, not wearing shoes, sitting on low chairs, and not watching any entertainment. (Mirrors are also covered in the Polish tradition, but this is not to minimize vanity, but to assist the soul in not getting lost on its way to purgatory, as well as preventing ghosts from scaring family members.) For the 30 days after that, the mourners begin to re-enter society, but continue to refrain from attending parties or celebrations, they do not shave or cut their hair, nor do they listen to music. These practices recognize that when a major change in life has taken place, the survivor needs to step out of everyday activity for a while. A year after the death of a parent, the family gathers again at the grave site and ‘unveil’ the grave marker. This ritual marks the end of the mourning period for the family.

Grieving is hard work, and it is not accomplished in anything like a linear fashion. You will need time to rest and gather your strength for the next round. Go ahead and take that sleeping pill; one won’t turn you into an addict, and you need the sleep. Whatever you choose to do, I know your way of dealing with your grief is exactly what you need to do.

Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak

Whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.

~Malcolm in Macbeth

Recommended reading:

About Grief: Insights, Setbacks, Grace Notes, Taboos. Ron Marasco and Brian Shuff. Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, IL. 2010.

Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change An Adult’s Life – For the Better. Jeane Safer. Basic Books, New York, NY. 2008.

How We Die: Reflections of Life’s Final Chapter. Sherwin Nuland. Vintage Publishing, New York, NY. 1995.


About Grief: Insights, Setbacks, Grace Notes, Taboos. Ron Marasco and Brian Shuff. Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, IL. 2010. pg. 129.

A Grief Observed. C.S. Lewis. Harper Collins, New York, NY, 1961. pg. 22

“Jewish Mourning Rituals” found at:

“’The Year of Magical Thinking’: Goodbye to All That,” Robert Pinsky, New York Times, October 9, 2005, found at:

Macbeth. William Shakespeare, Act 4 Scene 3.

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