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Men, Grief and Ritual

Copyright © 1994 by Tom Golden L.C.S.W.

(This article appeared in the January, 1995 issue of M.E.N. Magazine)

This article follows up on themes which Tom presented in his article "A Manís Grief."

Picture of Tom Golden

Tom Golden at his son's elementary school.

When we experience a strong grief we will experience increased chaos in our lives. We are moved out of our routines and habits and thrust into a time and place that seems chaotic and unpredictable. What is this thing we are calling chaos? We can understand this a little better if we turn to nature as an example.

Swallowed by a Snake
by Thomas R. Golden
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All things in nature operate within a dynamic system. This dynamic system oscillates between two poles, stability and chaos. Stability is maintained for a period and then chaos is experienced, moving the system out of its patterns of stability and into something new, different and life- changing.

For instance, I have a favorite tree in my yard. This tree has a remarkably-shaped trunk, looking a little like a Coca-Cola bottle with a gaping wound wrapping around it. I have often wondered what brought the tree into this shape. Was it a massive vine, lightning or disease? Whatever it was, it was chaos for the tree; it took the tree out of its stable growth pattern and changed its outward appearance and growth forever.

People are also dynamic systems, and grief is a time when chaos is present in more than usual amounts. When we are out of our stable pattern, many things change. One of those changes is that we are extremely sensitized to even very tiny variables. Thus, people who are actively mourning speak of the smallest incidents sending them into a wave of grief. Examples such as hearing a particular song, or seeing a certain product in the grocery store, which normally would have no effect on a person in a stable pattern, suddenly can take on mammoth proportions. Hearing that song or seeing that product taps into the grief, and the grief is brought into consciousness in all of its fullness. This is the way of chaos.

It is natural for people, just as it is natural for all of nature, to be oscillating from stability to chaos. Grief is one of the times in a normal life cycle when we will experience more of this chaos than at others. Grief is not a pathological state; it is a normal life event that throws us into instability. This instability also has its own pattern, and if we look hard enough we may get a glimpse of it, a glimpse that shows the intricate pattern of the chaos itself. It is within this pattern that new and deeper parts of ourselves reside. Many times, however, the pattern of chaos is not noticed until years after the grief. The patterns of pain and chaos from our grief are a double-edged sword. They are painful and difficult, bringing chaos into our lives. But they also help us move into a more developed level of functioning.

Ritual and Sampling our Grief

What can be done to help us in dealing with this instability? In grief we need a way to access a small portion of our pain and chaos. What is needed is something to slowly and deliberately chip away at the grief, something to slowly dissipate it's power and resulting chaos. The way that we can do this for ourselves is through ritual. Ritual is the way for us to consciously take a small sample of our chaos, our grief, and to process that sample in our own time. By doing this, we get to know our grief and our chaos a little bit at a time. If we don't get to know it in some way, the chances are that the pressure of the chaos will build and the grief will spew forth at whatever time and in whatever manner it desires. Doing the sampling work will not stop the grief from coming forth unpredictably, but it will dissipate the pressure, much as a release valve in a steam engine does. The steam valve releases some of the pressure built up in the system--certainly not all of the pressure, but usually enough to let the system function. Grief rituals give us a way to release the chaos within our system a bit at a time, using the powerful resource of our own consciousness.

What is ritual? Ritual is a very difficult concept to define. We can begin by thinking of ritual as being a part of our everyday life. We practice it each day, but many of us are unaware of its presence. When broadly defined, ritual can be seen as a way of moving from one state of mind to another. Saying hello and good-bye are rudimentary forms of ritual in that they move us from one state to another, from being alone to being with someone and vice versa. By saying good-bye to someone as we get off the phone, we are marking a passage and experiencing a rudimentary ritual that mediates the transition from talking on the phone to hanging up. It is a culturally-sanctioned mechanism that smooths the social movements of our lives.

There are many examples of this kind of ritual, from mealtimes to bedtimes. These everyday events that we practice are a kind of ritual that helps us in our daily living. Think of what you do to prepare for going to sleep, for example. What behaviors do you use to move from your waking state into a sleeping state? Most of us have personal rituals that we practice in this situation, such as putting on certain clothes, maybe listening to a radio program or reading, turning off the lights, and reviewing the day's events.

Grief rituals are both similar and different in some respects to these everyday rituals. One of the differences is that the rituals we have mentioned thus far are mostly related to habits that we have developed to help us in transitions. These habits, although helpful, are a part of our daily routine. In grief rituals, unlike our previously mentioned habits, we are practicing behaviors that consciously and intentionally move us out of our ordinary awareness and into the experience of the pain of grief. We use these rituals as a mechanism to consciously move into our chaos and our pain.

Grief rituals are not esoteric practices. They are something that you are probably already doing for yourself in your daily living. They can be as simple as leafing through a photo album or as complex as writing a symphony. The important thing is that the ritual activity is intended to connect you with your pain and grief and allows you to move out of ordinary awareness and into the experience of grief, in a safe way, for a period of time.

Ritual and its Structure

All ritual has an underlying structure. This structure describes the active components in the ritual, not the details of a personal ritual, but the infrastructure that lies beneath the surface. By knowing the components of the infrastructure you will be able to use this knowledge as a means to both understand the ritual you may already be doing for yourself, as well as be able to create new rituals that will fit your needs. The importance of understanding ritual in grieving is that it gives us a workable outline of how to heal from a painful loss. This knowledge is similar to what a good grief therapist would be conscious of during therapy.

In our culture, where there are almost no sanctioned rituals for healing grief, we are forced into a position of having to create our own rituals, many times without the help of others. The following will describe what I mean by ritual and will give examples of how this ritual process is used in healing grief.


To see what the elements of ritual are let's look at a simplified example. Think of the last time you went to an amusement park. Remember all the rides you went on or just watched. Almost all the rides at the park are "containers" for chaos. Consider a roller coaster: the speed and curves and loops of a roller coaster are certainly chaotic. Think of the situation you would be in if you had no bar locking you into your seat, no sides to the car, or worse yet, no tracks for the car to ride. The train itself is a container in which you ride through the chaos. Without that container you would be in trouble. The container of the roller coaster gives you a vessel within which you can experience safely the chaos of the ride.

The first element of ritual then is the idea of a container. Just as in an amusement park ride, ritual gives us a container in which to experience safely the chaos of grief. When grieving, we look for containers much like those in the amusement park--something with sides on it and a handle to grab if we need. Containment means creating a space where ritual will allow the chaos to be workable. People speak of this space as being "contained space." Psychotherapy offers a good example of contained space. In therapy, the hour of time together is not supposed to be ordinary time, but an hour when the client feels that he is in contained space. The therapist agrees not to make public anything that goes on in the treatment room. The client can feel that he is safe to talk about things without having to worry about content or breach of confidentiality. The client should feel that the therapist has his best interests at heart, that he is not in danger, and is free to be his genuine self, not just his mask self. Contained space in healing grief is simply a safe place to process the grief within. It is the first step in healing, for without it healing will not take place.

The idea of contained space also gives us a beginning understanding of the differences between men and women in grief. People naturally look for a safe place in which to experience the chaos of grief, but men and women tend to find safety in very different places. A woman often finds safety in her relationships with others and in relating the pain of her grief to those to whom she is close. A man, on the other hand, does not generally see this kind of space as being particularly safe. He will tend (for many reasons) to seek a more private and action-oriented container. It is not, as many people think, that the man doesn't grieve. He merely seeks a different type of contained space.

Some people have described contained space (and ritual) as being like an oven. This is not a normal, everyday environment, but one which requires a steward. In psychotherapy the therapist has to decide how long and at what temperature the client should remain in the "oven" of contained space. It is the responsibility of the therapist to maintain a proper environment for the client. In essence, he acts as a "ritual elder" in containing the space. The ritual elder, or person who stewards the contained space, is usually someone who has experienced the chaos himself on many occasions and knows the ins and outs of it. He is there to set up and maintain the container for the person going through the ritual.

Aside from psychotherapists and ministers or spiritual teachers, ritual elders are scarce in our culture. As we have become increasingly technological we have moved farther and farther away from contact with ritual. It is almost as if we assume that we can think our way out of everything, that logic and technology can supply an answer to every problem. We might even tend to see ritual as superstitious or primitive. But most of us are left to our own devices when it comes to healing our grief, without the compassionate guidance of an elder and without the socially-sanctioned mechanisms of ritual.


Thus, the first two elements of ritual are containment--an enclosure within which the ritual can be effective--and a ritual elder or guide to direct and watch over the process. Once these two elements are in place, other factors come into play, the first of which is submission. In order for the ritual to be effective one must submit to the process of chaos. Without submission the ritual can go only a small distance in healing. In the example of the roller coaster ride, submission would be getting into the seat, locking yourself in, and taking the ride. A lack of submission would be not getting into the seat. You might have the roller coaster at your disposal but if you don't lock into the seat you will never enter the chaos. In grieving, a lack of submission is usually a refusal to allow the chaos of grief into your consciousness. It is saying "no" to the grief. The primary reason for this is that the container does not feel safe enough.

An example of submission in ritual space might be an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The meeting itself is the contained space, and the element of submission is evidenced by the participant's opening statement, "My name is Bob, and I'm an alcoholic." The statement "I'm an alcoholic" begins the submission to chaos. The participant often goes on to say something such as "I am powerless in the face of alcohol." This is submission: I am powerless against these forces.

Therapists sometimes talk of the resistance of a client to therapy. This is a lack of submission. As a therapist, I have grown to know that many times it is more useful to change the container of therapy and somehow make it safer, rather than force the client to submit to the therapeutic container that I think is best.


What happens during ritual once you have a contained space, a ritual elder, and a participant who has submitted to the process? The next element of ritual is called deconstruction. For our purposes, deconstruction is when a person "takes apart" the old self that they inhabited before the loss. At the risk of making grief too concrete, we can think of this taking apart roughly in the same vein as fixing something that is malfunctioning. You might think of a time when your car didn't start. What you probably did was check the battery connections, then the battery itself, and maybe looked into the distributor, or pulled the spark plugs. In the process of taking things apart, or deconstructing, you found that one of the spark plugs was fouled. You then realized that this was the probable cause for the car's not starting. This process of taking things apart is in some ways similar to the process of deconstruction within ritual space.

In grief the deconstruction that takes place is the taking apart of the old self and the old desires. It is the observance of the death of one's old self. This is done within a contained space and, ideally, under the watchful eye of a ritual elder. I say ideally because, as we have noted, our culture has very few ritual elders. As we will see, most of the rituals that men in our culture have created to contain their grief are solo efforts. They do not have the luxury of a mentor stewarding the process.


After the deconstruction process the last phase of ritual takes place. This phase is reconstruction. After we have taken apart the old and identified what is in need of change, we are able to build a new part to replace it. In the example of the car, it would be simply putting in a new spark plug. In grief it is not so simple. There are many aspects of ourselves that are in need of deconstruction and reconstruction and the process is not linear. In the first month of grief we might go through the process of deconstructing and reconstructing some aspect of our grief, but it might be a year or two before some other aspect is integrated. In reconstructing we go through the many parts of ourselves that are affected by the grief. These can include our roles at work or home, our identifications with people or things, our habits, attitudes, or feelings.

An example of this might be a habit you had of calling your wife each day at two o'clock. Two months after she died, you dial the number at two o'clock and realize as the phone rings that no one is going to answer. Your secretary announces over the intercom that your two o'clock appointment has arrived, but you say that you are running late. You shut the door and are engulfed in feelings of sadness. You may cry some, then tell yourself "okay, pull yourself together," and you get ready for your appointment. This process is ritual in microcosm: by shutting your door you have created the closest thing to a contained space you could; by allowing the feelings of sadness to be conscious you are entering the chaos; by crying you are deconstructing. The tears are the expression of the pain of the grief. You are releasing the pain associated with this loss, and therefore deconstructing. Each time you do this you are closer to a point of being able to reconstruct new habits that are not based on the old self. By "pulling yourself together" you are leaving the contained space and re-entering the ordinary world.

Rituals Around the World

We can learn more about ritual by taking a look at a few examples from around the world. In tribal cultures there are time-honored rituals with which to enter contained space and deal with one's chaos. Rituals such as initiation ceremonies where the boy becomes a man or the girl a woman show the elements of ritual we have just discussed. The male ritual of initiation, for example, is crafted to be a contained space for the chaos of the death of the boy and the birth of the man. The boy takes part in a community-accepted ritual that will see him as a man after his ordeal. By dying to his boyhood, the boy enters chaos and deconstructs that part of himself, then gives birth to and reconstructs the man within himself by entering manhood. He begins the process of identifying with the man within. The power of this kind of sanctioned ritual is not to be underestimated. Not only does the boy have the experience of the ritual, but he is surrounded by a community that has a deep respect for this process and most likely sees the ritual as analogous to reality, if not reality itself. The community sees him now as a man, and this brings power to the ritual and its effects. The grief process is similar to this ritual: we die to the old self and give birth to a new one.

Another example comes from India. When a Hindu monk takes his vows, a part of the ceremony is a funeral for his former self. The old self dies. The monk is given a new name in the Swami order, and the date of his initiation is now considered his birthday. He is literally reborn on the day of his initiation, and his former self is considered dead.

Rituals in our own Culture

All of these examples are from other cultures. What happens in our own culture to men when they are grieving? The answer is a bit surprising. Men and women in our culture also use ritual in healing their grief. Without the structure of a culturally-sanctioned ritual for healing grief, we are put in a position of needing to create our own rituals. The men and women of our culture have done this, and the ways they have accomplished this are as varied as the people themselves. Each person seems to find their own way to use ritual. It depends on the strengths and weaknesses of the individual. People will tend to practice rituals that align with their strength in order to make contact with their chaos in a safe way.

Delano Foster

An example of the utilization of a grief ritual is the experience of Delano Foster, a grief therapist in Washington, D. C., who works with families whose relatives have been murdered.3 A year and a half ago, Foster's own brother was murdered. Delano grieved in many ways, but of particular interest to us is that he built a pond in honor of his brother. He dedicated the pond to his brother and erected a plaque in his honor. The pond became a place that reminded him of his brother and his own pain related to his brother's death. Whenever Delano is sitting at the pond he is closer to the experience of grief from his brother's death and the resulting chaos, and the pond becomes a ritual space for him to process his grief. Both the building of the pond and the time he spends there can be rituals that help him move out of his ordinary awareness and into his pain.

Brad Hamann

Another man, Brad Hamann, described his grief ritual in an article in Runners World.4 He and his father were running the New York Marathon together. As Brad crossed the finish line, he learned that his father had died of a heart attack at a certain point in the race. The son took from his father's wrist the runner's watch that he had been wearing. The watch became a symbol of both his grief and his father's life and death. He kept it in his desk drawer and would choose certain times to take it out and look at it, still running on the stop watch cycle. The watch and the times he would take it out and observe it became his contained space. He chose the times to do this, and each time he did he created a contained space for himself to deconstruct and then reconstruct. As he pulled the watch from the drawer, he left his ordinary awareness and entered into the chaos of grief. His feelings for his father would arise and be honored and acknowledged by him. He didn't go to therapy or join a grief group, but he found a way to create a contained space for himself and to gradually heal from this loss. The next year he ran the marathon again, wearing both his own and his father's watch. After starting the race he approached a bridge, and describing himself as spontaneously knowing what to do, he threw his father's old watch into the river. He knew that he had reconstructed enough to abandon this contained space and this old symbol.

We can see how these men used ritual in healing their grief. They created spaces in which they felt comfortable and safe in tapping into the chaos of their grief. Delano did this by building a pond, and Brad used his father's watch. There was no ritual elder to steward the process; they did this for themselves. These men allowed their contained space to be a place where they could submit to their chaos, and deconstruct and reconstruct. It is important to note that they found their chosen ritual path on their own, without the help of others. There is a wide variety of paths such as these that men in our culture take in healing their grief.

I do not want to imply that men shouldn't seek out help in dealing with their grief. The healing of a man's grief is quickened by contact with other men, (or women) and from contact with a good grief therapist. Grief is like manure, if you spread it out it fertilizes, if you leave it in a big pile it smells like crap. When we are in a strong grief process we can use all of the support we can get. If you are a man and decide to go into therapy I strongly suggest that you seek out a male therapist who has plenty of experience in dealing with grief, and someone who will let you use them as a consultant. I have found that men prefer a consulting arrangement where they have more say in the times they choose to consult.


The framework of ritual--contained space, submission, deconstruction, and reconstruction--can give men an outline to evaluate their own ways of healing. Grief is a process that demands ritual. When we experience a loss, we are stunned and enter into chaos. If the loss is large enough and crosses our threshold of tolerance, then we also submit. As we have seen, most people are naturally drawn to seek out a safe, contained space for grieving that fits with their own strengths and weaknesses. By consciously practicing our own personal rituals, we can slowly diminish the pressure of our grief and open ourselves to the chaos within. We can safely receive both the trauma and the gift that grief brings us.

Tom Golden is a therapist active in Menís Work in the Washington, D.C. area. This article is excerpted from Tom's series of three booklets on men and grief, which have been brought together into his book Swallowed by a Snake, available through MenWeb. Tom can be reached at: Tom Golden, LCSW, 104000 Connecticut Ave., Suite 514, Kensington MD 20895. (301) 942-9192. His e-mail address is:

Tom has a Web site on Crisis, Grief and Healing: Men and Women. It has more of his writing on men and grief, information on him, and and information about his book Swallowed by a Snake. His vision is that his Place to Honor Grief will also be a place to share and dialog on men and grief.

Related stories:


 A Man's Grief , An excerpt from Tom's book Swallowed by a Snake, which first appeared in the November 1994 issue of M.E.N. Magazine.

 A Tree for My Father, Tom talks about a ritual he did on the death of his father.

 On the Anniversary of My Father's Death, by Tom Golden

 A Ritual for my Father, by Bert H. Hoff

 Swallowed by a Snake, A review of Tom's book.

 Swallowed by a Snake, A review of an audiotape by Tom.

MP3 WebCasts:

Be sure to check out our three MP3 WebCasts of Tom Golden on men and grief.

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