We need a ceremony for finding closure
As a species, human beings depend upon rituals to make sense of the world. Back in the early days, it was sacrifices and rain dances, circumcisions and group chanting. More recently, it was debutant balls and wearing long trousers, bar mitzvahs and confirmation ceremonies. Today, it’s weddings and funerals, birthdays and Christmas, eggs at Easter, cards on Valentine’s, all designed to make us feel as though we belong; that we’re connected to one another; and that we are marking the significant milestones in our lives.
Those who think they don’t engage in rituals are fooling themselves. We’ve all encountered graduation ceremonies; hazing rituals; house warming parties; family dinners; will readings; game nights; leaving parties; awards ceremonies; and countless others. Humans clearly have a deep psychological need for reassurance that we are part of a larger whole – that we are connected to our culture, our society, our family, and the rest of humankind, past, present and future – and rituals provide that sense of connection.
Nowhere is this more true than in relationships. We bring flowers to a first date; we eat at tables illuminated by candlelight; we gift love tokens and send love letters. As the relationship progresses, we might exchange symbolic rings, and make vows of our commitment to one another in front of our families, our friends and our god.
On anniversaries and Valentine’s Day, we reaffirm our love for one another with gifts, romance, personalised expressions of our mutual regard. At Christmas, we kiss under the mistletoe; at New Year, we kiss on the stroke of midnight and ring in the new year, together.
Should we decide to have children, we have baby showers, gender reveal parties, christenings, which lead to more birthday celebrations, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus.
When worse comes to worst, we have a funeral, a wake, a service of remembrance. We scatter ashes at a cherished location, place flowers on a grave or throw a wreath onto the ocean.
All of these rituals link us to our common humanity and reassure us about the world and our place in it.
So why are there no rituals for ending a relationship?
Moving on from the grief, the hurt and the shattered dreams, is vital for our future well-being – particularly if, like me, you’re a survivor of abuse. Yet how can we process these thoughts and feelings, contextualise them and put them behind us, without the rituals that provide guidance over virtually every aspect of our lives, and are available for every other prominent milestone of our relationships?
In the absence of these rituals, finding closure is a haphazard affair fraught with missteps and no guarantee that you’ll ever reach acceptance of your loss.
My own experience was being abused for ten years by my wife, to the point that I could no longer cope and had to be removed from the house and taken to a place of safety. In the space of a single weekend, I lost my marriage, my home, my children and my health. I didn’t get to say goodbye; I didn’t get to slowly transition from one chapter of my life to the next; I was simply torn away from everything I knew. It was brutal, and more than a year later, I still haven’t come to terms with it.
How can I externalise the horror of this situation? How can I find a way to make sense of what happened to me? How can I put it behind me, find closure, and move on?
I searched in vain for a ritual to ease my suffering and provide a comforting sense of reassurance following this loss. There’s a lot of advice online, much of it rather hokey – giving your grief to the moon, for example, or speaking to your goddess, consulting the Tarot cards or communing with the forest. I’m sure that casting spells and burning sage might be helpful for some, but not so much for me.
More practically, some people burn mementos of the ex-partner – photographs, love letters, trinkets – in an attempt to destroy their attachments to the former relationship. Many get tattoos to symbolise new freedom, converting emotional pain into physical pain, and making internal scars visible. Others reinvent themselves with a new haircut and new wardrobe.
One ritual is to take a cord representing your attachment to your ex and cut it, symbolically separating you. Another is deleting their text messages, blocking them on social media and emptying your photo bin – a modern way of letting go. One day, on a high cliff overlooking the sea, I took the keys to my former home – the home where all my dreams had been shattered – and flung them out into the void. That cutting of attachment, that acknowledgement that it was over and there was no going back, felt good.
But while these rituals might feel good in the moment, they’re different from the others in one important respect: instead of creating connections, they are focused on severing them. Rather than a public ceremony that stresses our sense of belonging and allows us to share our joy and our grief with others, breakup rituals are personal, solitary, depressingly isolating, making us look inwards instead of outwards, and feel our separation from others instead of our commonality.
The closest I’ve found online to a ritual that stresses connection is a ‘closing ceremony’ where partners share the ritual of breaking up. They get together and talk about what they loved about each other, how they’re feeling now, their hopes for the future, and how grateful they are for the time they had together and what it taught them.
This seems great, but requires two very mature and emotionally open individuals to work. I can’t imagine there are many painful breakups where former partners can be so open and vulnerable with one another, nor am I sure how that would work with people like my abusive, aggressive, manipulative, controlling, violent ex. Talking to her about what she did to me and how I was feeling would devolve into her blaming me for our breakup; telling me I deserved the way she treated me; denying that she threatened my children to control me; pretending she can’t remember cutting off my beard with kitchen scissors; and probably having a drink thrown in my face. Such a ritual would be more harmful than healing, and closure would be ever further away.
I don’t know what the solution is, or what a socialised breakup ritual would look like. Maybe some sort of gathering where you tell your friends and family the story of what happened to you, then they reaffirm what you mean to them and how they share your loss, and then you can do some of the other rituals in front of your social group – the burning, the cord cutting, the deletion from social media. That way, you’re creating connections even as you’re severing others.
Like I said, I don’t know what the solution is, or what form a breakup ritual might take, but I know that as individuals and as a society, we desperately need one. More than that: I need one.
Otherwise, I worry that I’ll never get over it.