Myths & Rituals

➣ Myths and Rituals: A Format for Healing Soul Injuries

by Deborah Grassman


The Power of Myth, a book by Joseph Campbell, awakened me to the value of myths and rituals and their relationship to the change and recovery process. To my scientific mind, myths were untruths. Yet, here this brilliant professor was showing me how myths spoke truths about personhood and humankind. Just as parables (stories that are not “factual”) are used because words cannot completely embody truth, so too do myths embody larger truths. Myths use symbols that access the energy of the unconscious. Campbell reminds us that truth is often hidden in symbols, requiring nonphysical eyes to see it.

Joseph Campbell spoke similarly about rituals. To me, the word “ritual” meant a habit that was empty of meaning; it meant actions that were robotical, automatic, habitual. However, Campbell writes that the rituals to which he speaks are just the opposite. They are filled with meanings that provide maps for navigating change. They provide order in the midst of chaos, helping things fit together. Their purpose is to transform the experience by bringing congruence to what was initially incongruent. The ritual does not fix the problem but rather opens us up to a deeper interior dimension that allows us to be at peace with the changes that have occurred. Just as myths speak a larger truth of the unconscious, so do rituals.

The term “ritual” often has a negative connotation; people sometime associate it with cults or gangs. Unsavory groups do take advantage of ritualized forums, but they also use forums such as speech and books to disseminate their message. Yet, the rest of us don’t stop speaking or reading for fear it might link us to something sinister; neither should we fear rituals. In fact, the more I learned about rituals, the more convinced I became of their therapeutic value. The more I let go of my preconceived ideas about what I thought rituals were, the more I became open to their effectiveness in reckoning with change. I realized that in times of uncertainty, loss, and change, therapeutic rituals provide a format for letting go of the old, integrating the uncertainty of change, and redefining a different, hopeful future. I became so convinced of the value of rituals that I designed my graduate school master’s thesis on the relationship between rituals and hope. I embarked carefully upon the study of designing therapeutic rituals that could be used clinically to provide support, guidance, and hope for hospice patients and families as they faced the uncertainty of changes that accompany death.

For healing to be complete and heartfelt, the unconscious mind must be engaged. Rituals provide access to the energy of the unconscious. Once these rituals are valued, I hope that people will learn how to develop them to navigate important changes in their lives. When combined with integrative letter-writing, it becomes a powerful tool for abiding hardships and reckoning with the changes needed to create peace and healing.

A gaping hole in our society exists that would benefit from a therapeutic ritual. This gap is left during war — when soldiers are killed. Their surviving comrades are given no time or format to grieve. Stopping to grieve would get you killed. Plus, “good” soldiers don’t cry. So where does their grief go? Mostly, the grief goes into the unconscious where it remains hidden until a later loss triggers its release. Currently, I have been challenging hospices and funeral homes (specialists in bereavement and grief recovery) to meet this societal need be offering an annual ceremony specifically for combat veterans so they can come forth to finally be able to honor their dead comrades and honor their own grief. Pat and I developed such a program. It originated when we were providing clinical consultation services to the staff so they would better understand how to care for the unique needs of veterans as they die. I asked a Vietnam Veteran, “Is there anything from the war that might still be troubling you now?” The veteran, hardly able to talk due to severe COPD, nodded his head. Then he said, “My brother and I both went to Vietnam, but I was the only one who came back.” Tears slowly ebbed down his cheeks while we waited in calm silence. Then, he added: “I didn’t even get to go to his funeral.”

We explained that we could design a ceremony to honor his brother and create space for his grief. We explained the value of unmasking unresolved grief. The veteran’s face visibly lightened and he eagerly participated in the designing of the service. That’s when we realized the gaping wound in many of the veterans at the State Veterans Home, so we invited all of them to the service to mourn their comrades fallen during battle. About 25 showed up! There were many tears as these veterans allowed themselves to confront their losses and begin moving through them.

The value of rituals cannot be underestimated, especially because ritual has been a successful aspect of military culture throughout the years. An effective ritual consists of three stages: separation, transition, and integration (see subpage on the 3 stages).

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