When someone dies, it is common to mark their death with funeral rituals, but the idea of using a ritual to mark someone as they near the end of their life is less common. Yet rituals could provide succour to all involved at this difficult time.
Rituals help people to mark and make sense of the big life changes that we all go through, such as births, marriages and deaths. Rituals work when the people involved understand what is going on. For example, for a non-religious parent, it may make sense to have a secular baby-naming ceremony, rather than a religious christening or baptism to welcome their baby to the community.
Ritual is often thought of as actions that express shared meanings, such as lighting candles during a funeral ceremony. They could also be words or music, such as reading a poem or playing a favourite song. Rituals can help us deal with change, partly because of the shared understandings we have of the actions involved, but also because those ritual actions tend to be familiar to us. Using familiar words and actions in an unfamiliar situation can help us find our way through it.
We are used to thinking of funerals as being for the living. The funeral can be an opportunity for bereaved people to mourn, to share stories about the person who died and to come together with others who are grieving. Funeral ritual can help people to feel more in control when faced with a terrible loss.
The period of time when someone is dying, however, is viewed differently. The focus is on the dying person and on making sure that they receive the care they need. But ensuring that the person who is coming to the end of their life receives the best care does not mean that those who love them need to ignore their own welfare.