Using Nature-Based Rituals as an Intervention for Adult Surviving Siblings

Waterfall with autumn colors


The sibling relationship is distinctive in comparison to all other human relationships.  Siblings share personal and familial history, experiences, values and traditions, are often each other’s first playmate and confidant, and even share 50% of their genetic composition.  It is the most equivalent of all familial relationships.  Siblings expect to outlive their parents and grow old together in what may be one of the most intimate relationships of their lives.  However, the death of a sibling signals the end to such promise and marks the beginning of a unique and intense loss experience.

Some individuals who struggle with grieving turn to mental health professionals for support in their search for methods and techniques to reduce the emotional pain of their loss.  One method that has recently been studied is the use of nature-guided therapy as a modality for healing (Burns, 1998; Cohen, 1993; Clinebell, 1996).  The use of nature therapy, which is the engagement of the individual in varied activities in the environment, is thought to originate out of the Outward Bound model developed in the 1920’s by Kurt Hahn (Burns, 1998).  While the original model was originally intended to promote experimental educational goals (namely to provide an environment for students to experience the validity of values such as self-confidence, compassion, and persistence first hand) current nature-guided therapies are aimed towards providing healing experiences from an emotionally corrective perspective (Angell, 1994).  For example, through nature-guided therapy interventions, one may experience a feeling of shedding the “old self” and coming to a realization of a “new self” that is connected to the environment (Kiewa, 1994).  Another result may be gaining more in-depth insight to life’s problems (Slosky, 1973).  Further possible outcomes include the individual learning a survival skill or a new sense of personal power from his or her nature experience (Powch, 1984).  Finally, the individual may search for a short escape from the demands and responsibilities of the world, finding a safe place to just “be” (Angell, 1994; Kiewa, 1994; Levitt, 1994; Powch, 1994; Slosky, 1973).

The ability to create meaning from one’s loss is an important aspect of managing the direct impact that a sibling’s death has on the adult surviving sibling (Fanos, 1996).  Another powerful technique an individual may use in making meaning of his or her mourning experience is the use of ritual.  Ritual allows for creative expression of emotion in a container that provides meaning, purpose, order, and relationship.  For those who have lost a sibling, ritual may afford an opportunity to make meaning and integrate new understanding into his or her worldview. 

The functions of ritual are numerous, including connecting the individual to his or her personal power, the development of self-identity through meaningful experiences, finding a sense of order out of the chaotic, and allowing an individual to emotionally distance his or herself from intense emotions through the dissociative state that occurs with the rhythmic and repetitive (and sometimes religious) nature of the ritual (Eliade, 1958; Gennep, 1960; Hart, 1988; Turner, 1969).  Rituals of mourning serve their own unique purpose by using symbols that “facilitate the psychological mourning process of identification, introjection, separation and resolution” (Katz & Bartone, 1998, p.195).   

In a study conducted by this researcher, the experience and emergent themes of nature-based rituals for adult surviving siblings in management of mourning was explored.  Six adult surviving siblings participated in a nature-based bereavement ritual and were interviewed using a semi-structured interview to understand their experience of the ritual.  Three categories containing a total of 16 themes were revealed.  The study’s emergent categories included: 1)  Participants’ Evaluation of Ritual Planning, 2) Participants’ Evaluation of Ritual Performance/Experience, and 3)  Participants’ Evaluation of Ritual Re-Integration. 

The first category, evaluation of ritual planning, contained five themes.  These included: 1) preparatory anxiety, 2) sadness, 3) anger, 4) happiness, and 5) mindfulness. 

The second category, evaluation of ritual performance/experience, contained six themes.  These included: 1) importance of linking objects/concepts, 2) cathartic release, 3) the use of verbal and nonverbal communication, 4) mindfulness, 5) positive evaluation of nature (containing five sub themes: a) peacefulness and calmness, b) freedom to focus on the grieving process, c) confidence, d) ability to focus, and e) ritual place and sense of home), and 6) spirituality (containing two sub themes, use of religion, praying and church, and use of symbolism).

Finally, the third category, evaluation of ritual re-integration, contained five themes.  These were: 1) beliefs of emotional processing, 2) sense of closure, 3) sadness, 4) guilt, and 5) belief of continued bonds with the deceased sibling.

The population of this study is greatly under represented in the literature.  Most of the literature focuses on children and adolescents who have lost a sibling.  Additionally, nature-based rituals have never been studied empirically as a therapeutic intervention before this study, although they are often spontaneously assigned by therapists or completed by the bereaved.  The emotional experience of the ritual process was just one of the many themes to emerge and give rise to new thinking about this intervention and its use with this population.

This study and results indicate that adult surviving siblings can use nature-based rituals as part of the therapeutic process in managing mourning.  The participants experienced emotional processing during the beginning, middle, and end of the ritual intervention, mirroring van Gennep’s (1960) rite of passage theory.        

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