I’ve started lighting a candle every time I lose something.
Not when I lose something like my keys or cell phone.
I light a candle when I face the kind of loss that causes grief—from the seemingly insignificant grief of the loss of time with friends during a pandemic year, to the more recognizable grief of death—I light a candle.
It is not a fig-scented three-wick candle. It is the long skinny beeswax kind that the Christian Orthodox use in worship and burns smokeless. I light a candle, put it in sand, and let it burn itself out.
It is also not regular sand from a beach vacation. It’s special sand—maybe even sacramental sand, dyed four colors and used in a ritual that marked two weeks from my second Pfizer shot. Friends had gotten vaccinated at the same time and came over to the house when our immunity was deemed full. After more than a year without any dinner guests, our meal felt unfamiliar and yet so normal.
Candles as metaphors
Between dinner and dessert, we took our lists from the past year, narrated our stories, and lit candles. We lit candles for the deaths and put them in the black sand; the blue sand was for candles representing other losses like visits with family. I had tears when I wrote my lists, but now the shared grief brought some kind of peace. We moved on to put gains in the green sand and joys in the red.
The way the candles burned was a metaphor—death burning itself out first and joy last, joy bending toward gains as the heat softened the straight wax. They extinguished themselves as these things do—grief stays as long as it wants, or maybe as long as it needs to. When we looked at the carefully color-quartered tray of sand, we realized something: Though it was a year like no other, every year that passes witnesses its share of death, loss, gain, and joy.
Since the pandemic is not over, we went home with mixed sand in a flower pot with a succulent. We also had more candles. Last week, I learned that a dear pastor whom I knew when I worked internationally passed away. I cried, lit a candle, and put it in the sand whose colors mix death, loss, gain, and joy.
Rituals help us. This one helps me grieve.
In western Christianity, a loved one dies, we gather for the funeral and then it is back to work, often all within a week. We have no additional rituals by which to process grief; some make up their own rituals, while others simply go without.
I went to a Messianic Congregation once and in the middle of the service, they invited all who had lost a loved one within the last year to stand. Surprised, I stood because I had lost both grandfathers that year. They read the “Mourner’s Kaddish,” words of blessing that do not even mention death. It had been a hard year and simply standing that day played a part in my healing. I wonder what it would have been like to do it every week.
Orthodox Christians also acknowledge that grief is a process and rituals help us heal. Seven days after the funeral, the family brings a special sweet-wheatberry-fruity-nutty salad to church on a tray with a cross. The food is blessed and they ask God to grant rest to the servant or handmaiden of God who fell asleep in the Lord. Parishioners greet the family with “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “Christ is risen,” and everyone shares the yummy salad. The same act is done forty days after the death, and then a year. After that, a family can do this for a loved one at any time.
Whether we theologically agree with the prayers or not, there is something cleansing, healing, empowering in ritually remembering the loss five, ten, or even fifty years hence. There is something that happens to all of us when we watch a fifty-year-old daughter weep at the ten-year memorial for her father’s death. We are all a little closer to Jesus, our own sleeping beloved, and each other, when we greet with, “Christ is risen! Memory Eternal! May God rest her soul.”
Christians have a long history of rituals that aid us in the journey of life. Baptisms, weddings, and funerals are some that are common to all. While these rituals may draw on the Bible, the New Testament gives no clear prescription about how to do any of these worship rituals. The New Testament does not even tell us how to do Sunday worship. The only prescribed rituals are in the Old Testament, and most Christians have left them behind with the old covenant.
Those who like to check boxes and be assured they are right might be bothered by this lack of instruction in the Bible. Others interpret it as an opportunity for biblically faithful invention. All of our worship was invented by a person or a group of people. Even a bare bones baptism or Lord’s Supper celebration tends to have a more elaborate and prescribed ceremony than simply biblical words. We add and invent because the Bible gives us freedom to do so.
Honor the process
Perhaps as a church we can create rituals that honor the process of grief. Grief caused by death lasts not just for a few days, and it may become even more painful as greater time elapses since the last time we saw our loved one. Some may process the loss in therapy through an outward action like writing a letter to the lost loved one and burying it. Individual is good. But the power of community recognition and ritual creates a synergy of healing and belonging—it manifests how the body of Christ suffers together and rejoices together (1 Corinthians 12:26).
We do not just grieve death. We grieve job loss, breakups, divorce, empty nest, dementia, chronic illness or pain, and more. The ritual we enacted to mark the end of our unvaccinated phase of the pandemic reminded us that loss is always accompanied by gain. Perhaps we can create rituals to aid us in grief that can be done as a small group or even as a church.
I cannot write of rituals without giving you an opportunity to ritualize. I invite you to try an individual ritual for grief. If friends or family are present, invite them if you like, but if you are alone, this still helps. You only need some space. This is a short invented ritual that you can use any time the grief feels intense; it is a lament.
Most of the psalms are lament and follow this pattern:
Complaint: “This is wrong!”
Petition: “Help me, God!”
Declaration: “I trust you God”
Perhaps you have written or read a lament before. This becomes a ritual when you add movement and symbol to it. I invite you to try this:
Kneel down on the floor in body or in spirit, and tell God what is wrong. Often grief feels like it knocks us down; may it knock us down to our knees before a loving God. If you are with others, invite them to either listen or tell of their own grief. Hold your hands in front of you like a cup. Imagine putting your grief into your hands away from your body.
When you have placed enough grief in your hands and feel ready, stand to your feet with your hands still cupped in front of you. Ask God for help; you may even suggest how you think God might help.
Slowly lift your cupped hands above your head, declaring that you trust God to be with you in this grief and that you believe God to be faithful. Add other declarations of attributes of God that seem appropriate. Physically push the grief in your hands above your head and away as you bring your arms wide in a half circle down to your sides.
Still standing, cup your hands again in front of you in a receptive posture. State, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). Receive comfort from God and those with you. If you are alone, remember how others have comforted you in your grief. You may like to finish with a prayer.
This ritual is not meant to end grief. Grief is a process that has different times of intensity. This ritual is meant to help you in the journey of grief. It can be done daily as an individual discipline, occasionally when the grief wells up, or even yearly on a specific anniversary. It can be done only once or multiple times.
Repeated rituals for similar events can be powerful reminders of God’s help in the journey of life. I needed to light a candle today because it has helped in these months. Just yesterday, I learned that a college friend was diagnosed with incurable cancer. I lit a candle and placed it in the mixed sand that has witnessed all my recent losses. As it burns, I pray for empowerment in her fight for more time and I remember the rest of us as we cheer her on through tears.