By Janna Henning
People in helping roles, such as therapists, ministers, and hospice workers, bring great compassion and empathy to their work as they care for those who suffer. We deeply resonate with the pain of others as we serve them, but continual exposure to stories about trauma, pain, and loss may make us vulnerable to negative physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual effects. Exhaustion, physical illness, and despair may not only harm us, but reduce our ability to assist others or participate fully as positive change agents in the world.
Everyday rituals of sustenance and support can provide fuel for the healer’s journey, restoring and refreshing well-being and the continued capacity to feel joy in our work.
As a therapist for survivors of severe abuse and people facing end of life, I use ritual to close and cleanse the workspace at the end of each day. I mindfully tidy my office, rinsing out tea cups, emptying garbage cans, straightening items on the coffee table. This simple ritual reminds me of my ability to control at least some aspects of the world around me, no matter how small. It also reminds me of the possibility of a fresh, clean start after a night or weekend of rest. At the end of each week I also take a few moments to burn sage in my office to neutralize and move old, spent energy from the space; the sage scent is also a sensory reminder of the transition into rest. As I turn off the lights and close the door, I pause to take these visual cues into my awareness, and gently remind myself that the time for work has ended and the time for rest and replenishment has begun.
Working with persons in distress can be quite taxing for my physical body; strong emotions are evoked, and the skills of patience, calming, deep listening, and emotional joining require physical energy. Grounding rituals help me return to the body, bringing me back to the “here and now.” I walk home slowly, feeling the ground beneath my feet and the movement of my muscles. I take care to notice the sensory world: the temperature of the air, plant and animal life, and sounds from near and far. At home, grounding rituals include petting my cats, a warm bath, comfortable clothing, drinking a soothing beverage, and eating healthy and delicious food as I transition back to full body awareness.
Thomas Attig called soul the “home-seeking aspect of our will to live,” including connection with others and cherished memories from the past. To restore soul, I ritually take note of my own emotional state, and ask myself what I need. Do I need a good laugh, playfulness, and silliness? Or would an exchange of affection or support be most helpful? Awareness of my own needs helps me to seek support from loved ones through intimate conversation or reviewing of beloved photographs or letters that remind me of enduring relationships.
Attig called spirit “the soaring aspect of our will to live,” including growth, hope, and meaning. At the end of each week I ritually note what has gone well, the ways my clients and I have grown and changed, and how my work has made a difference. I place physical reminders of these successes, such as letters, photographs, and collages, in a purple folder for regular review. Meditation, visualization, and singing music with others also contribute to the restoration of my spirit and soul, so I schedule time for them each week.
As we focus on the needs of others, healers often forget to devote care and attention to ourselves. These simple rituals remind me to restore my body, soul, and spirit, thereby refreshing my self-acceptance, wonder, gratitude, and awe for what is possible through healing human relationships.
Janna Henning is a clinical psychologist and educator who specialize in traumatic stress and death, dying, bereavement, and loss in psychotherapy. She also provides training in self-care strategies for people in the healing professions who work extensively with survivors of trauma and loss. She is a therapist in private practice and an Associate Professor at the Adler School of Professional Psychology in Chicago. She’s also a Certified Funeral Celebrant because of her lifelong fascination with the use of rituals and memorials to honor and facilitate healing after loss. You can reach Janna at janna.henning [at] gmail.com.