We mark life’s important milestones with rituals – words and actions, often shared with others, that become a signpost that one stage has ended and another has begun. After death, we gather to pay our respects and to remember the life that blessed us with its presence. We use graduations ceremonies to delineate the end of childhood and the beginning of a new, more independent stage. Birth announcements are sent so that the larger community can share in the joy of a birth. Celebration dinners are held to acknowledge birthdays or promotions and flowers are sent in solitary to those in grief.
Rituals provide a shared language, a way to both announce the transition and to allow others to share in its experience. In ritual, we acknowledge the importance of any loss or any new gains. There is comfort in the action, especially when it suggests a next step when your vision is clouded over with emotion. Rituals both honor the past and allow for change; they are the spiritual linkage between what was and what will be.
Rituals provide a pause.
A collective breath. A rare moment to simply be in the between. An opportunity to connect through shared memories and possibly shared tears.
Some rituals are more private – the silent prayer, the daily scribbles in a journal, or the annual review of important photographs on an anniversary. Yet even these provide a sense of connection, providing a feeling of being part of something greater than ourselves.
Without hours of returning to alien and vacuous house after my husband abandoned me, I engaged in spontaneous rituals of my own. I burned love notes that I had written to him in the outdoor fire pit that we had recently bought together. Each pledge of love fed to the flame brought a new wave of fresh tears and each charred fleck of paper that escaped towards the sky brought with it a new sense of hope for rebirth.
Later that night, possessed with restless energy and filled with grief that alternated between rage and sadness, I gathered up his things, hauling trash bag after trash bag to the garage. I needed to finalize his exit by the removal of the evidence of his existence.
Over time, the rituals became less frenetic and more purposeful. I committed to daily entries in my journal, many of which were a way to say goodbye. I took one last walk through my garden, touching each plant as I passed. The tangible detritus of our marriage in the form of photos and letters was packed away until I could decide what to do with it. And the night my divorce was finalized was a strange parody of a birthday dinner, attended by friends and family.
Divorce is the end of one life and the beginning of another.
And unlike most life transitions, divorce does not come with a socially-constructed instruction manual that suggests pre-approved rituals. So we have to construct our own way to mark the occasion, both remembering and honoring what was and making space for what will come.