Rituals as a Roadmap for Grief

Dr. Dru Johnson in the City Room at The King’s College, debuting his new book. ||Photo credit to Elizabeth Vandenboom.

Dr. Dru Johnson in the City Room at The King’s College, debuting his new book. ||Photo credit to Elizabeth Vandenboom.


Rituals provide a beaten path forward from life’s darkest and most confusing moments, Dr. Dru Johnson explained to students of the King’s College in the City Room last Friday.

“In its attitude toward death, a culture defines and reveals its understanding of life’s meaning and goal,” Johnson said.

This understanding is crystallized in rituals and handed down throughout generations—without question.

“Rituals can be helpful at times you don’t know what to do,” Johnson said.

Defined practices and customs provide people with a sense of stability when everything is crumbling. They tell people what to do and how to move on when their ‘script’ is tossed aside and their lives are thrown into chaos.

“After the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan, entire villages mourned the loss of friends and family” Johnson said. “How could the communities deal with such pain on a massive scale?”

The answer lies in a ritualistic response: They wrote a new roadmap for a path out of unprecedented pain.

“One man had a simple idea to help people engage with their loss,” Johnson said. “He transformed a common action, making a phone call, into a grieving ritual—talking to the dead in a phone booth.”

The grieving survivors went into an otherwise ordinary phone booth to make calls that would never be answered.

“Though the phone booth isn’t hooked up, the grieving come to connect,” Johnson explained.

They entered the secluded booth and spoke to the loved one’s they’d lost. This action provided sacred space for the bereaved to confront their emotions and find clarity amidst the confusion.

”The ordinariness of this ritual seems to help them navigate this extraordinary circumstance. It gives them what scientists call ‘deliberately controlled gestures to follow,’” Johnson said.

In the face of grief and overwhelming loss, mourners found solace in a simple, mundane action. They were able to cope with the unexpected catastrophe and issue the final goodbyes circumstance robbed them of.

“The disconnected phone actually works. Grieving people have to do something,” Johnson said.

This phenomenon exemplifies the central maxim of Johnson’s thought: scripted rituals tell people what to do when the unthinkable happens. They illuminate the first steps out of helplessly dark places.  

“The mourners’ phone booth strategically modifies a day-to-day practice to discern a way forward,” Johnson said.

Because of the central role rituals play in shaping our responses to death and chaos, and thus informing our attitudes on life itself, we must examine them carefully.

“You are already being guided by scripted rituals,” Johnson said.

There is no such thing as a rites vacuum. We are all handed scripts; the best we can do is try to examine them.

Johnson urged his listeners to ask the pivotal question: “Where do my daily and regular rituals find their roots and according to whom?”