By Liz Gleeson

Published December 10, 2020 in

Ritual, Symbol and Metaphor

Ritual, Symbol and Metaphor, to help cope with bereavement

 The death of a loved one is one of the most significant life experiences that people must face and all too often, grief is skipped over, a stiff upper lip is employed, arrangements are executed and the bereaved are expected to return to normal life and ‘get over it’ in a prescribed amount of time. Ritual, Symbol and Metaphor all have a significant role to play in helping the bereaved to transcend loss and counterbalance some of the negative effects of a society that never seems to stop, sometimes not even for death. 

Metaphors can help us to express some of the more difficult emotions that words evade and find meaning in our loss. We draw on them in vain hope that they can offer comfort to the bereaved; throwing euphemisms at a situation that is beyond our comprehension “you’ve an angel in heaven now” is easier for some to say than “I’m so sorry that your baby has died”. Metaphors can also serve as complicit partners in evasion and denial: “She’s gone to sleep, flying high with the angels,”.  They serve us in denying the finality of death, the messiness of it, and package it in a way that is more acceptable.  Metaphors can help the bereaved to shape their connection to the deceased and work towards meaning making and continuous bonds; it’s a lot more acceptable to maintain continuous bonds with someone who ‘lives on in his son’ than some of the other alternatives that death conjures up. 

 Since prehistory, man has used symbol to create meaning and promote healing. Symbols can be the link to our subconscious and help us to create meaning for whatever it is that we’re going through, whether they be universal symbols or generated from our own visual brain. Many symbols are universal, many are also culture-specific. Nowadays, many of these rituals are being dropped by society and the bereaved often find themselves sitting at their desks, returned to work just hours after burying a loved-one (there is currently no statutory bereavement leave in Ireland or the UK). 

A wake, funeral or memorial service are all key rituals or symbolic acts that provide a container for the individual and community experience. This commuinity ritual obliges people to take time off work to honor the deceased, to stop and acknowledge both the individual and the collective loss. Grief is made public and the community takes time to meet with the bereaved and offer sympathy and support. If the death was sudden, violent or tragic, the funeral ritual can serve to highlight social issues and promote resilience within the community. These rituals help the bereaved come to terms with the loss and acknowledge the reality of the loss, thus avoiding death-denying factors which can contribute to ongoing decrements in physical and mental health, in a society where there is widespread death-denial. Creating rituals that involve symbolism can serve in giving an element of control to the bereaved. They may have felt powerless over the death of their loved one, but they can control the service, the choice of grave, the color of the urn, the memorial fund, the symbolic legacy, the Facebook page. It is a way to take back power, find energy again, express the extent of the loss and facilitate the grieving process.

 “Funerals and memorial services are rituals and rites of passage that allow people to function during a time of deep distress and confusion” (Whipple 2006).

Some bereaved individuals create their own rituals, infused with symbolism that represent what has been lost and the transformation of what was to what now is; trees are planted, photo books are made, memory boxes created, sometimes the deceased make videos before they pass away as a means to leave their loved ones with something tangible, a keepsake that will continue their memory after death.

Symbols are often used at funerals. A photograph of the deceased may be placed on a coffin. The service may include symbols that represent aspects of the deceased person’s life: a musical instrument, sports equipment, a pair of hiking boots. All of these symbols serve as a reminder of just what has been lost and help the bereaved to come to terms with the entirety and finality of the loss. They also serve to represent the different groups of bereaved people and their relationship to the deceased, i.e. fellow musician, sports club member, work colleague. 

Following the death of Princess Diana in the UK, a memorial fountain was built in Hyde Park and a memorial playground in Kennsington Gardens. Creating such projects can help bereaved individuals and communities to transform their grief and create something positive from the loss. Meaning making is understood to be a vital component in accommodating to ones losses and symbols can help us in achieving meaning when it seems that our world is senselessly falling apart. A symbol can help to fill a void that was once occupied by the deceased; it can serve as a container and focus for grief and help us to avoid over internalizing the grief to the point of self harm or mal-adaptive coping.

The creation or use of symbols by a grieving individual can help to communicate deeply distressing internal pain into positive, creative communication that allows for growth and expansion, perhaps making the grief a little easier to bear. The use of symbols can help in containing fear, anxiety, confusion, existential crises and the externalization of feelings that are too overpowering to cope with, at least initially. Symbols offer us a way to revisit our losses and complete our stories, helping the subconscious to organize itself in a broad manner and adapt to or accommodate the loss.

The use of art, dance, drama, music, writing or poetry are all ways to bring the internal world into the external, where it can be witnessed, acknowledge, processed and transformed, giving great relief to suffering, assist in healing, without having to explicitly and logically speak about the process. Through the creative arts therapies, people can process suffering at many different levels without having explicit awareness that that is in fact what they are doing; the creative process itself is healing, as is sharing with others exactly what is going on for us.

Creative Arts Therapies

The creation of art in the presence of another, can provide a suitable container for the alchemy, the healing and transformation, to happen. Trust, safety and support are just some of the qualities a good Creative Arts Therapist will bring to a session, as well as being an active witness to the therapeutic process. They can also encourage, if appropriate, the expression of meaning and association and that’s where the healing can become more tangible and explicit. Helping people to gain access to their own internal imagery is helping them to find a vocabulary of expression in a safe yet also very intimate way. Asking someone to give voice to their creation or to give it a title can help them to get to the heart of the story; to fully understand what it is they are working with internally.  Over a period of time, people can witness the changes in their artistic journey which reflect the internal changes also. The material may be paint, sand, clay; all of them serve to bring images from the unconscious into a physical form that can then be explored. 

Art, objects and symbols can often spontaneously lead to play or dramatic expression, which in turn can lead into physical embodiment and expression. Humans are naturally expressive, creative and dynamic. Using creative methods to symbolize our internal world is a way to express the unsayable, to externalize that which is too painful for words, to share and be witnessed whilst giving a sense of control.

The language of symbol and metaphor is sometimes universal and sometimes culture specific. Candles are used in many cultures as a symbol for loss and grief, along with a white dove, or here in Ireland, the triskele has been adopted by the Hospice Friendly Hospitals Programme as a bereavement symbol to let visitors and staff know that a recent bereavement has occurred. The symbol is an invitation to those who see it to adopt a quiet and respectful demeanor and to be prepared to meet people who are grieving. Symbolism as a language of grief can be adapted to suit the individuals needs and avoid the chasm that often exists between health professionals language and the felt grief response of the bereaved individual.  When professional language is not consistent with the experience of the bereaved individual, symbols can help to bridge the gap and serve as a more universal language for grief.  Symbols can help to stimulate narrative, an essential part of working through and transforming grief.

“A human burial contains more anthropological information per cubic meter of deposit than any other type of archaeological feature” (Peebles, 1977). 

Liz Gleeson is a psychotherapist in private practice in Co. Wicklow. She is curator of the Shapes Of Grief Podcast and presents internationally on grief-related themes. She has an MA in Dramatherapy, MSc Bereavement Studies, MA Counselling & Psychotherapy and is currently a Phd Student. Liz is creator of the award-winning Shapes Of Grief online Grief Education Programme for mental health professionals, a global online project, and she teaches on the MSc Bereavement Studies at RCSI/Irish Hospice Foundation. Sign-up to the programme at

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