You have to wonder. Why was the study done by researchers at Harvard Business School and not from professors of psychology or psychiatry?
Regardless of the source, Michael Norton and Francesca Gino’s study of the ways people deal with grief is important and valuable.
Emily Esfahani Smith reports their conclusion: people who do best at overcoming grief have one thing in common: rituals.
Confucius would approve.
In the study, published in February in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, they found that some mourners are more emotionally resilient than others, and those who overcome their grief more quickly all have something very important in common. Following the loss, they performed what the researchers refer to as “rituals” in the study. But these were not your typical rituals.
A few of the rituals were religious and others were more social. But, ,ost of them, Smith explains, “were personal and performed alone.”
For example, one person, following a breakup, performed this ritual: “I returned alone to the location of the breakup each month on the anniversary of the breakup to help cope with my loss and think things over.” Another person gathered all of the pictures they took as a couple during their relationship and “then destroyed them into small pieces (even the ones I really liked!), and then burnt them in the park where we first kissed.”
A man whose wife passed away wrote: “In these fifteen years I have been going to hairdressers to cut my hair every first Saturday of the month as we used to do together.” Another lady, whose husband died, said she still washes his car each week as he had done when he was alive.
Why do they do this? And why does it work?
I speculate that the private ritual functions as a middle ground, a golden mean between forgetting the deceased completely and obsessing about the loss. It commemorates a death without allowing it to consume one’s life.
I also believe that when a loved one dies, your world is often thrown into turmoil. If you lived together the loss will disrupt the conduct of your everyday life. If you spoke to someone on the phone every day or every week, you will feel dislocated.
The daily rituals we share with others produce our sense of security and of connection. When you lose them, when they can no longer be performed you will feel unmoored.
You will be faced with the task of redrawing, restructuring and reorganizing your life.
And yet, when we reconstruct our everyday routines, it feels like we are disrespecting the dead. It feels like we are saying that he or she was someone we could easily have lived without. If we spent that much time with someone whose disappearance is inconsequential, what does that say about us.
By performing a private, commemorative ritual, we make a gesture of remembrance. The gesture allows us to continue the work of remaking our lives.
Interestingly, research has shown that it's the performance that matters, not whether people believe in the ritual. You do not need to know what the ritual means. Its meaning lies in its being an action performed by a social being.
Smith opens her essay with Joan Didion’s description of how it felt to lose her husband to a heart attack at the dinner table:
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” writes Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking. “We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.”
We cannot know, she says, when we lose the person we love—as she lost her husband John Gregory Dunne 11 years ago—“the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” The tragedy of such grief is that the loss of a loved one is irreversible. It is total and final.
But, if the death seems meaningless, one would naturally believe that it could be cured by being placed in a narrative.
Some forms of therapy attempt to treat loss by placing it in a narrative. You feel excessive grief because you feel guilty about having wished for the other person’s death. Or else, you feel guilty because you have survived while he had passed away.
And yet, the notion of private ritual precludes all narrative solutions. A death takes on whatever individual meaning it will have by being commemorated in a private ritual.
Smith continues that the private ritual imposes order on chaos. It affirms one’s social being and, I would add, allows there to be a new order:
When Norton and Gino probed deeper into the emotional and mental lives of their research subjects, they found that rituals help people overcome grief by counteracting the turbulence and chaos that follows loss. Rituals, which are deliberately-controlled gestures, trigger a very specific feeling in mourners—the feeling of being in control of their lives.
To Didion, the sorting of bills was symbolic. Deliberately done, it was meant to help restore the broken order of her world, to reveal she was in control and “handling things.”
For those who are familiar with psycho theorizing, I would underscore that grief, even the kind that is involved in mourning, is not the same as the feeling of depression.
When Freud drew the parallel between mourning and melancholy he confused large numbers of people. He confused things even more when he suggested that both could be folded into narratives.
Yet, even though depression might involve a feeling of loss, it also, more prominently features feelings of worthlessness.
Depression might involve the loss of face, the loss of status, the loss of prestige, even the loss of a job, one’s place in a community, but this is not the same as losing a husband or wife or brother or sister or parent or child.
Both are disruptive, but the private ritual that palliates grief declares that the loss is permanent.
If depression involves losing face, then the cure is saving face. That means, belonging to a group, learning to function as a member of a group, regaining status or prestige within the group. When you save face you build on what you have. You do not learn to function as though you have no face.
Unlike death, the loss of face is revocable. It should be an impetus to regain something, to recover, not to commemorate what was lost.