The importance of rituals or symbolic acts in handling change

In a world filled with change, it is often not the physical changes we find difficult but rather the emotional letting go of the way the world used to be and the shifting to a new identity. These psychological responses are called ‘transitions’ and they come in three stages.

The first stage is called Separation. This is where we deal with the grief and other emotions that can naturally arise when we realise that the world we once knew has gone. Before we can turn to the future and create whatever is going to come next we have to process these emotions.

To do that we need to realise that emotions are not rational: they cannot be resolved through purely rational means. We cannot simply tell ourselves that “The past is over and we must turn to the future.” Instead, we need to take the time to say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done.

The best way to achieve this is by performing simple actions that symbolise a letting go of the past and a taking of the best bits of it with you. And so rituals and symbolic acts become an important way to show people as well as tell them that they are moving through the Separation phase.

Retirement parties are an example of this. They provide a time and space for everyone to process the emotions they are feeling about the colleague who is departing: to give thanks for the past, acknowledge the reality of the present, and prepare to face a different future.

A larger scale example took place in Northern Ireland in 2015, when a large bonfire was ritually burned as a way to mark an ending to the Troubles.

There is no ‘right’ way to go about this. Depending on your situation, you might want to hold a farewell party or give a thank you gift, bury something, plant a tree, write a letter (but not send it), burn a symbolic object in a ritual way, or hold a minute’s silence. People might want to take with them a physical memento of the past: a pebble, a signed card, a photograph, a plant.

What matters is that you find what is appropriate for you and the unique people around you. The abilities you developed with the earlier tools will play a key role in enabling you to do this and to speak and act that truth appropriately, on behalf of yourself and others.

Only once you have used ‘rituals’ and symbolic acts to mark the end of the Separation phase will you truly be able to turn to face the future and start to build something new.