4 Ways Caregivers Can Use Rituals

Using ritual

Have you ever heard people dismiss rituals as the historical trappings of ancient religions? It makes little difference to them if the rituals are Eastern, Western, conservative, or liberal.  People make the argument that even though these behaviors may be beautiful and ancient, they have little relevance to life today. Nothing can be further from the truth, especially for caregivers who are serving loved ones with chronic or progressive illnesses. For them, the use of rituals can become a valuable tool in their arsenal that benefits the person they are caring for as well as themselves.

Ritual and Historical Relevance

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. believed historically, symbols and rituals were essential in the lives of people who weren’t able to read. Those who ruled society and were literate used symbols and rituals to control and teach the masses. Control and education could explain why rituals were important during medieval times, but how do you explain the power it still exerts in 2016? And even more importantly, does the use of ritual result in anything positive?

Religious and non-religious rituals surround us ranging from Catholic confession to playing the national anthem at the beginning of professional sports events. What is it about ritual that is so fundamental it crosses all religious and non-religious lines? And why should caregivers embrace it?

What to Do: Forget about the relationship ritual may have with a religious tradition. Its relevance to you is whether it can serve a positive function in your caregiving. As caregivers, you are not only taking care of someone’s physical needs, but also trying to be sensitive to their emotions.

An important variable in caregiving is the losses a person experiences with chronic, acute, or progressive illnesses. With that loss comes a breaking with the past, usually of pleasant events still remembered. You can bridge the gap between loss and what had been possible by using rituals. Connecting with the past may not be as rewarding as still being able to do pre-illness activities, but it’s better than dwelling on the losses.

Ritual and Outsiders

Many organizations have rituals and ceremonies that distinguish them from other groups. We find these in the local Moose’s Lodge as well as street gangs. Whether someone is the president of a beneficent group dedicated to the benefit of economically disadvantaged children or a new member of a motorcycle gang interested in illegal activities; rituals distinguish its members from “outsiders.” How different is a street gangs' wearing of colors than the Shriner’s Fez?

Ritual is a way of saying we’re different, we’re special. It may involve the tasseled hats of Masons, the use of bones in Odd Fellow initiations or the violent retribution a new Blood gang member is expected to deliver against a rival. Although there isn’t any equivalent to having an outsiders’ designation in caregiving—other than a uniform for a professional caregiver—of importance is the understanding that ritual can make the person being cared for feel special.

Ritual can create a positive twist In the dwindling world of a person whose chronic or progressive illness creates isolation. One caregiver told me that instead of trying to convince her husband that his failing heart condition didn't isolate him, she used the isolation to create a peaceful space. Every afternoon she gathered the incoming mail, and with her husband they ritualistically threw away every piece of incoming mail into the fireplace that was irrelevant to his life. A match ignited the papers and both rejoiced in the reduction of what was no longer important in their lives. The burning of junk mail became a ritual that gave both of them comfort.

What to Do: It seems disingenuous to glorify a medical condition as something that can lead to positive feelings. Creating ritualized behaviors emanating from the illness or disease is neither disingenuous nor unrealistic. Rather, the act focuses on something positive within a terrible situation that can produce uplifting feelings as it did for the patient who ritualistically threw away junk mail. Take the most depressive aspect about your loved one’s condition and create a ritualized behavior that can minimize its negative effects.

Ritual Power and the Past

Rituals can create connections with the past that are more pleasant, rewarding, or comforting than what is experienced in the present. The writer, Robert Penn Warren said that history cannot give us a program for the future, but it can provide us with a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity.

Ritual is a link with our personal history. It can be religious in the form of ingesting the representation of a revered figure or the superstitious antics of baseball players preparing to hit a ball. The strength of the connection rather than it religious or non-religious origin is most important.

Many years ago, I returned to the small eastern Pennsylvania town where I grew up. Still unchanged was the movie theater I attended every Saturday afternoon hiding my face whenever Dracula appeared and wildly cheering Hopalong Cassidy as he shot the gun out of bad guy’s hand without hurting him.

At 10:00 am I found the theater’s manager preparing for the evening showings. I asked him if it would be possible to wander through the auditorium where I had some of the most joyous times as a child. “Of course,” he said.

When I walked past the refreshment stand, I remembered buying teeth-rotting candy and popcorn whose unexploded kernels that always held the possibility of cracking my teeth. I went through the entry door on the left, nostalgically walked down the aisle, and there was my favorite seat on the end of the 8th row that I sat in more than 60 years ago. As I settled in it, images of my past flooded my mind: Abbot and Costello, Hopalong Cassidy, Buck Rogers, and the Our Gang Kids. Missing was scattered  Ju-Ju Bees that would hold my sneakers firmly to the floor.

It was a ritual just as powerful as a Catholic Mass, fasting on the Jewish Yom Kipper, or supplicating by a Buddhist three times to give thanks. The power of my hastily created ritual was equal to any associated with a religion; pulling me back to an important part of my life. Caregivers can use rituals that connect to their loved one’s pleasant past to create a sense of peacefulness as it did for a gentleman I served in his 80’s who had been a founding member of a well-known west coast motorcycle club.

He was confined to a bed in a care facility. On the wall and around the room, were memorabilia from his motorcycle days from the 1950’s to 2015. There were pictures, trophies, helmets clothes and even small motorcycle parts. He explained that he began every day with a virtual tour of his life, starting with pictures of himself on a motorcycle when he was 15 years old and ending with a picture taken of himself at his last club meeting.

What to Do: Most caregiving situations involve comforting people who have lost something important in their lives. It usually involves an activity or an ability that either has been lost or is in the process of disappearing. Most of us know what was lost can’t be recovered (e.g., running marathons for someone with a degenerative muscular disease). However memorable events related to lost abilities can be retrieved through rituals. Begin by gathering concrete connections (e.g., golf trophies, special golf clubs, etc.). Then use them as the basis for creating a ritual.

Ritual and the Present

Ritual can also provide closure for the present.  A few years ago I attended a friend’s celebration of the passing of her Labrador Retriever. He was surrounded with flowers, incense and friends remembering their wonderful times with him. The rituals my friend created to honor her dog’s life resulted in wonderful memories for her friends who attended the ceremony rather than them dwelling on the gigantic hole left in her life.

What to Do: As a caregiver to someone with a serious or progressive illness, you face the possibility of losing someone you love. You may be sure they will recover, or you are certain you will lose them. Regardless of the prognosis, you can create positive events. You can create a vivid and pleasant memory from almost anything.

When my brother-in-law was dying, the family would gather around his bed and together we would recall some of the most humorous times we had with him. He relished the story telling, continually asking us to recall the positive events in his life. Many years after he died, on most holidays, we would recount the stories as if we were again at his side. That ritual brought us closer to him and sustained our loss.


Almost everything we experience is stored as memories in some fashion. Some events are stored as if they were undistorted photographic plates with little or no changes from what was seen. Others are bent, creating images of things we never really saw but wished we had. Regardless how clear or distorted the memory, it is retained, waiting to be called up by events, words, or even thoughts.

By creating positive rituals we provide comfort for the person we are caring for, and set the stage for future connections with the memory of the person we love.

Ritual is an important psychological event that has served, currently serves, and will continue to serve a basic need of life: It connects us with the past and grounds us in the present. Cutting oneself off from it, cuts oneself off from our history and forces us to stand alone in the present. Embrace ritual and use it to benefit the person for whom you are caring and provide a lasting foundation for your memories.

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