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  • Sue Phillips

Spirituality, Ceremonies & Rituals

This isn’t the first time the topic of rituals has come up in my blog. I blogged about various cultural death rituals just over a year ago, however, the topics of spirituality, rituals and ceremony come up often in end of life discussions and I am grateful to continue to take the time to explore my own experiences and feelings as well as those of the people I get to know along the way.

I’ve been looking back at my own childhood and what religious rituals made their mark on me. I do remember admiring the nuns in my Roman Catholic elementary schools – even the ones who were mean to us and smacked our hands with a yardstick when “necessary”. These holy sisters were mysterious and of course directly connected to “him” – the one and only God. The acts of confession (a disclosure of one's sins in the sacrament of reconciliation), contrition (the state of feeling remorseful and penitent), or especially the First Holy Communion (considered one of the holiest and most important occasions in a Roman Catholic person's life) all felt deeply important and we were convinced by the sisters and fathers (priests) we would surely go straight to hell if we strayed from what was required of us in order to be “good Catholics”. I fondly remember how I felt in my communion dress which was definitely holy! That was then.

Once I reached my teen years, I was too much of a rebel to be convinced of any of these beliefs so I actively erased any mark they might have left up to that point.

I remain unconvinced of those teachings but have allowed myself to receive and recognize deep spiritual beliefs within myself and the world around me. I am grateful to honour the energy of the earth, and the humans of the world around me and am respectful of all others’ beliefs and spiritual or religious traditions, including the Roman Catholic ones.

The concept of hell has been a key focus for a lot of people who have grown up in many organized religions, some of whom are taught that they are born having to make up for some terrible wrongdoing – the fire and brimstone kind of environment. This seems to be a worry for many people. When talking with some people in their 80s they often appear to have a great fear of judgment and hell, although I personally cannot imagine why any one of the people I’ve spoken with would have done something that constitutes “going to hell”. As a child and young teen I viewed that as a person having to be pure evil. What constitutes evil? It is not for me to say. Some people believe they will be judged according to impure thoughts.

Death anxiety and dread exist for many different reasons. I find this so very sad. When I started my doula practice, I was hopeful (and still am) that I might help people not only be able to accept that their death is near but also to empower them to create an end of life that fulfills them in meaningful ways. In addition, a goal is to help them consider that there might be beauty and joy to experience beyond their death. These aspirations remain my mission as I work with people at various stages of their illness and/or death journey.

There are profound beliefs in the value of rituals and ceremony, whether they are part of our religious or spiritual upbringing, or part of our daily self-care. Rituals empower us – collectively and individually. They help us to commune, to grow, to connect.

What is ritual? A ritual can be described as steps you take to get a desired result. When several rituals are performed in succession you might then call it a ceremony. Weddings or funerals have a few rituals that make up the ceremony of binding to another person or honouring a person’s life after death.

The impact of a ritual or ceremony is highly subjective. When we witness rituals or ceremonies, we might feel intense emotions such as joy or grief or we may feel nothing at all. Rituals are typically done in groups which helps people feel closer together. This is one of the most important parts of the experience – creating a sense of togetherness.

Of course, we also have rituals that we perform alone. Lighting a candle, writing in a journal or prayer and meditation are all rituals.

I recently had a beautiful discussion with someone who encouraged me to delve further into my own spiritual beliefs especially those around ‘after death’. She indicated it was possible I had some barriers around my spirituality and that by examining it more I could be of deeper support in a spiritual manner with my clients. At first, I was resistant to this idea exclaiming, “what? I don’t have barriers; I am open to receive” but very quickly recognized she was on to something.

One definition of the work of an end of life doula is: we provide non-medical, emotional, practical, and spiritual support to our clients and their circles of care. After this very thoughtful, inspirational discussion I realized that I often have not opened a discussion with a client around spiritual needs but have waited for them to approach it, feeling I was respecting them by doing so. I now know I am meant to provide that space in a much more direct and supportive manner. Creating space for people to explore their beliefs, and their faith-based traditions and important rituals and ceremonies, especially during their illness or death transition, is exactly what I am meant to be doing. I look forward to providing that spiritual exploration and possibly a ceremony to assist in the passage of life on earth for the people I have the honour of serving.

“The end of life deserves as much beauty, care and respect as the beginning” ... Anonymous


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