Liberating unmourned loss and unforgiven guilt/shame

Stages of Ritual

by Deborah Grassman

In my study of therapeutic ritual, I learned the importance of choosing symbols for rituals that have shared meanings for the individual or within the group. I also learned about the three stages of ritual: separation, transition, and integration, so that peacefulness can ensue. Well-designed rituals are powerful because they access the unconscious; the unconscious can cultivate pervasive personal peace if we can open up to its honesty.

Separation Stage

The purpose of the separation stage is to acknowledge the problems and difficulties that make change necessary and to recognize the need for a person to separate from their former roles or identities that are interfering with peace. During this stage, there is a request to reframe unwanted change into an intention to change. For example, military rituals are formatted with highly evocative styles and symbols. Patriotic music and American flags activate unconscious images that motivate new identity and new will. Induction rituals help new recruits separate from civilian identity. Uniforms are issued, and heads are shaved. Recruits are sometimes ridiculed for their former immature, lazy, and civilian ways.

Many religious rituals might begin with a confession of sinfulness, asking for God’s help to let go of thoughts and actions that have interfered with more godly ways. Funeral rites or memorial services start with the acknowledgement of death and the reality of facing life without the loved one.

The separation stage is crucial in creating an effective ritual. In a grief-denying, “never say good-bye” culture, it’s tempting to skip the separation stage so that we don’t have to give adequate time and energy to articulating the need for change and separation. For example, modern funeral ceremonies often try to skip this essential stage by proclaiming, “This is a day to celebrate Joe’s life.” Unfortunately, this eliminates a safe space to grieve, the very thing the participants need. Not only that, if the need for change is not openly expressed, the silence reinforces fear of the problem, heightening the control it exerts. The whole point of a therapeutic ritual is to create a safe environment whereby the problem can emerge from hiding so its power can be diminished and the person’s empowerment to deal with the problem can be enhanced.

Transition Stage

This stage is often the turning point for acceptance or rejection of the change that is being offered. Anxiety or resistance can be anticipated to be highest at this stage. Participants are asked to leave behind the familiar and anticipate a new beginning without knowing what a new beginning will require. Old identities are let go while new identities are not yet secured. Straddling two worlds, people don’t feel like they belong yet to either. The transition stage of ceremonies usually focus on educating the participants on ways to navigate the desired change.

In the military, the transition stage is used to indoctrinate recruits with a new world view that promotes warrior perspectives during several weeks of basic training. The transition stage in religious rites might include Bible readings and sermons that encourage change and living a more godly life. Funeral rites eulogize the deceased person during this transition stage of the burial ritual.

Integration Stage

The final stage of a therapeutic ritual is the integration or incorporation stage. This stage seeks to instill hope for a future that promises growth. Thus, the ceremony is closed with a sense of renewal and confidence that change can be navigated and that peace will prevail. A symbol is often given that participants can take home with them. They are encouraged to let the symbol act as an inspiration to continue with the change – activating inspirational experiences from the original ceremony.

In the military, the integration phase culminates at the end of basic training with graduation ceremonies that symbolize the new warrior identity. In religious services, this phase might include celebration rites such as communion. In funeral rites, it might include a challenge to let the deceased person’s admirable qualities inspire others or assist in filling the gap the person leaves behind. It helps people let go of the world as it has been with their loved one in it. Then they can open up to a world without their loved one in it.

Books about Soul Injury and Ritual

You can read stories about the implementation of ceremonies and rituals in Deborah Grassman's books, Peace at Last: Stories of Hope and Healing for Veterans and Their Families and The Hero Within: Redeeming the Destiny We Were Born to Fulfill.