One of the most common things people with cancer, heart disease, kidney failure, and other devastating diseases tell me is that the experiences of hospitalization and treatment are profoundly isolating. This sense of aloneness may even determine the will to live. When we feel the caring support of others, many of us can face the unknown with greater strength. I will often use ritual to help clients at times like this.
I learned one such ritual from another counselor who also journeys with people facing disease, Rachel Naomi Remen. It is a ritual she uses at times like this. I adopted it because I sensed that it is a profound way that others can make visible their caring and compassion for the person facing that is facing a procedure. Prior to surgery or treatment, I suggest they meet with some of their closest friends and family the day before the procedure. It does not matter the size of the group, but it is important that it be made up of those who are connected to them through a union of hearts, a strong spiritual or emotional connection.
Remen describes the process: “Before this meeting, I suggest they find an ordinary stone, a piece of the earth, big enough to fit in the palm of the hand, and bring it to the meeting with them. The ritual begins by having everyone sit in a circle. In any order they wish to speak, each person tells the story of a time when they too faced a crisis. People may talk about the death of a loved one, the loss of jobs or of relationships, or even about their own illnesses. The person who is speaking holds the stone brought by the patient. When they finish telling their story of survival, they take a moment to reflect on the personal quality that helped them journey through that grim time. People will say such things as ‘What brought me through was determination,’ ‘What brought me through was faith,’ or ‘What brought me through was humor.’ When they have named the quality of their strength, they speak directly to the person preparing for the procedure, saying, ‘I put determination into this stone for you,’ or ‘I put faith into this stone for you.’” (Remen, 1996).
Once, I invited my client to include remotely, a very dear friend, who lived out-of-state and could not physically attend the meeting. The client invited several of her local support to my office and we connected the dear friend via a secure video link. When it came her turn, the friend held her hands as if holding the stone and shared her story and conferred her blessing upon the patient.
Moving and intimate the ritual often inspires all participants. After everyone has spoken, the stone is returned to the patient, who takes it with them to the hospital, to hold in their hand when things get hard. Some people have had the stone taped to their palm.
Clients who have practiced this ritual have spoken touchingly about how it helped them endure their fears and the procedure, knowing that they were connected to those who cared. Ritual, whether through a stone or thoughts or prayers, is one of the oldest ways to use the power of community for healing.