Tailor-made rituals help address unspoken life changes


Through personalised rites of passage, a former art curator helps people cope with major life transitions like divorce, death or surgery

Quest for meaning

Marriages, New Year celebrations and funerals are rituals observed around the world. But what about other pivotal moments in our lives, like the end of a relationship, career change or moving into a retirement home?

Seeing a need to recognise these personal changes, the former art curator Barbara Raes has created new, tailor-made rituals. Beyond the Spoken - werkplaats voor niet erkend verlies (workshop for unrecognised loss) aims to help people come to terms with important, but often neglected, life transitions.

Raes (pictured), who lives in Ghent, is well-known in the Flemish arts sector. Having spent 15 years as a programmer for the Buda and Vooruit cultural centres, she decided to try something new. 

The choice fell upon a training programme for funeral celebrants in the UK. “My question was whether or not people get a chance to say goodbye in a helpful way,” she says.

After observing more than 80 funerals, she came to a worrying conclusion. “There are nearly no elements in a funeral ceremony that point to the fact that this is a transition in the lives of loved ones,” she says.

Crisis of meaning

She began to realise the enormous need for people to find ways to commemorate important transitions in their personal lives. “Our society has become a fluid one,” she explains. “Communities aren’t a group of people who live on the same street anymore, but stretch across the globe. Families disintegrate and reform; the people closest to you might not even be your relatives. With this fluidity, we may have lost the tradition of coming together when something important happens in our lives.”

As a result, our society is experiencing a crisis of meaning, she says. “Because we no longer commemorate or celebrate important transitions together, we’ve stopped trying to answer life’s big questions – those transcending the here and now.”

Because we no longer commemorate or celebrate important transitions together, we’ve stopped trying to answer life’s big questions

- Barbara Raes

A year ago, Raes decided to create new rituals for those life changes we don’t recognise with a ceremony. “Like divorce, starting a new family or rebuilding your life after an abortion,” she explains.

Another example of an unrecognised loss, she says, is a physical change to one’s body, for instance after surgery. “I prepared one woman for a double mastectomy with a ritual, and it helped her a lot,” Raes says. “This is a reversal of the logic of the care sector where one comes into the hospital without being prepared, then wakes up in a different body and is refunded for five sessions of therapy to cope with the change. With rituals, people consciously prepare for the transition.”

Letting go

Each ritual is personalised and begins with a series of talks. “The most important thing to ascertain is what this person wants to say goodbye to,” Raes explains. “In the second talk, the person brings objects, which I give to an artist to integrate into an installation. I then ask the person where the ritual should take place and who should be there with them.”

Raes write out a script for the ritual, contacts the people who will be attending and assigns them special roles. “After the ritual is concluded, the central person cooks for everyone, and we talk about the experience. Two weeks later, I see the person again and ask for their feedback.”

With rituals, people consciously prepare for the transition

- Barbara Raes

In one of the rituals, which Raes describes on her website, a couple goes on a walk before they’re about to divorce. They are accompanied by their daughter, her godmother and Raes.

Halfway through the walk, the couple lights a fire and burns the things they want to let go of. They then walk in separate directions, one accompanied by the daughter, the other by Raes.

Based on the feedback, Raes is convinced that rituals are helping people to close chapters and to process changes they would otherwise continue to be confused about. “Many people experience a crash because they carry the burden of a series of important moments they have never consciously coped with. With rituals, you dare to look at what has happened, you tackle it and you find the right form for it.”

Photo courtesy Beyond the Spoken