Few of us realise that the loss of an unseen internal organ can be one of lifes major traumas. It may require a grieving process that can last for months or even years. When I found that I needed a hysterectomy for recurrence of pre-cancerous cells, like many women I had strong feelings about losing my womb. I feared, irrationally, that it would diminish me as a woman and that sex would be different.
Feelings like these need to be acknowledged and worked with rather like voices within us that we know about than subliminal messages in our psyches. This is where rituals can give us so much – a gift we have largely forgotten how to use. Rituals can help the grieving process for they allow us to make a statement, on many levels, of our willingness to release and move on.
What is ritual?
It is ceremony performed with sacred context and with intent, invested with whatever meaning as performers choose. It is a very personal thing and when performed to acknowledge the pending or actual loss of an intimate bodily part it is perhaps at its most personal.
When considering ritual I recommend you find what is most meaningful for you. This lends it potency. Though you may like to take guidance from the rituals of others, I would encourage you to make up your ritual yourself from your own inspiration and heart. It may be as brief as a few minutes or as long as you like. Some people simply light a candle and say a short prayer: “I give thanks for your part in my body and life and release you with love”. Other people go away for the weekend with friends to a special place for ceremony and celebration, to grieve and laugh together and share deeply.
Whatever form it takes, it is likely that everyone will be changed by the experience. I often hear how deeply touched people have been when invited to participate in anothers rituals; they experience them as sacred acts. We miss ritual in our lives and often don’t know that until we experience it.
Once you have decided to create your ritual, the next step is to ask yourself what you want to convey by doing it. Maybe gratitude to this part of your body for the role it has played physically, emotionally and energetically and a goodbye.
Perhaps you wish to acknowledge what this loss means to you in terms of change of body image. Women who have lost a uterus or ovaries may for example, experience a profound change in how they perceive themselves, not just in relation to their fertility. Pat said “I do not feel I am a woman anymore”. A stunningly beautiful woman, she needed to release her belief that her uterus defined her femininity.
When she started to devise a ritual to let go of her uterus, she began to see the possibility of redefining her femininity within her whole self. Many women are glad to say farewell to their womb if it has been a the source of pain and/or debilitating bleeding; but even a happy loss has its grieving process and place for ritual. They may have an anger to express on the womb which did not behave as expected, or distress that an operation and its loss became necessary. There may be celebration of the release from discomfort and joyful embracing of a freer life.
The sequels of some losses are constant reminders of the part that is missing. This often happens with colostomy, premature menopause due to removal of both ovaries or the absence of a breast following mastectomy. A significant number of women are unable to look at or touch their mastectomy scar initially and devise ways to wash without looking. This adds another dimension to the grieving process, which should be recognised in your ceremony or in an ongoing ritual.
The grieving may not be solely by the person facing the operation. Maggie, a woman of 35 told me how her 5 year old son was also grieving the loss of “his breast” which he had suckled till about a year old and had still related to as a comforter in times of illness or vulnerability. The remaining breast was not the same. It was the missing breast that he had loved. Maggie was aware of his anger toward her and felt guilty for giving away “his breast”. Fortunately she was able to work through the feelings with him.
Partners are often very deeply affected by the loss of their loved ones breast, but may find it hard to express their feelings or think that they are not entitled to grieve something that was not theirs. A ritual involving the couple can allow the partner to indicate what the loss means.
Having the opportunity to practice what I preach, I devised a ritual for the loss of my womb. It was a deeply moving experience for all involved and I share it here as an illustration.
Ritual for a Womb
The site was a place that has special meaning for me a large indoor space dedicated as a sanctuary with a wide arch, providing the focal point. We held the ceremony on my birthday. I had let my intuition dictate whom I should ask. This was very important and I took some time over it, watching my fear of upsetting those who were not invited. Everyone knew each other quite well. Other women friends in England, Ireland and even New Zealand lit candles and sent blessings.
I began by setting up an altar with a special cloth, a candle, flowers, a book with a bright yellow cover entitled The Uterus (now I know why I bought it) and a rose quartz crystal. Nearby was a tray with a basket of tasty fruit bread, a chalice made of Bristol Blue glass, a bottle of wine and a corkscrew. And on the other side of the altar stood a Power Shield which I had built after training with a Native American teacher.
We worked in a circle with a large decorated candle as the centerpiece, to represent the fire (out of doors it would be appropriate to build a fire). I set the directions before the others arrived. In the North I placed a large salmon pink stone for Earth. An orange candle for Fire went in the South, a beautiful golden bowl of water in the West and incense of Frankincense and Myrrh for Air in the East. (Different traditions have differing correspondences for the directions. None is right or wrong. If you feel that water is in the West, you will create the energy of water in the West of your circle; if you feel that earth is in the West you will bring the energy of earth to the West). When my friends arrived, laden with flowers, they each put a piece of jewellary on the altar to add their own energies, a spontaneous gesture I had not thought of.
The others were each assigned one of the four directions and we entered the circle in the West, passing the East to honour the direction, before taking our places within the circle. Gael, who was acting a priestess, began by casting a circle drawing an imaginary circle around us all in a protective psychic space about 12 feet in diameter. She then cleansed the circle with water, taking the chalice from the West and walking clockwise within the circle sprinkling water as she went. Next she purified with fire, carrying the candle around the circle.
I went to each woman calling in the goddess and the power of that direction.
- I call upon the Great Goddess of Earth and the
powers of the North
- I call upon the Great Goddess of Fire and the
powers of the South
- I call upon the Great Goddess of Water and the
powers of the West
- I call upon the Great Goddess of Air and the
powers of the East
Holding hands we walked faster and faster around the circle to raise the energy chanting “She changes everything she touches and everything she touches she changes” over and over. By then the circle felt quite potent. I went to each woman in turn to receive a blessing and a small gift which was laid by the candle and later became a tiny altar which I took into hospital with me.
- In the North, Catharine “I am Earth woman. Powerful, strong, embracing woman. Sara let Earth ground you, feed you, root you in her embrace”. I received a crystal.
- In the South, Jan “I am fire woman. Hot, passionate, purifying woman. Sara let fire touch you, teach you leap in your now”. I received a tiny Buddha.
- In the West, Judy “I am Water woman. Fierce, tranquil, ever changing woman. Sara let water quench you, wash you, drown you in rainbows”. I received a seashell.
- In the East Gael “I am Air woman. Fresh, light, soft, gentle woman. Sara, let air bend you, shape you, fill you with peace”. I received a tiny feather.
We then gathered around the candle, I read a favourite piece from Circle of Stones by Judith Duerk and then began to speak, and weep, about my womb, honouring its part in my body and life and grieving its loss. As it turned out, this was the final grieving and letting go, a process which had been going on since I had made the decision to go ahead with the operation two months previously. As I spoke and shared, staring into the candle flame, I suddenly had a deep understanding of my wisdom, my wise womanhood a mantle which I seemed to be embracing with this act of letting go.
Each of the others then shared their experiences of their wombs, all remarkably different. We took our time with this, aware that it was important for each of us to bring our deepest thoughts and feelings to the circle. After that we opened a passageway from the circle and brought in the massage table on which I lay for healing.
Jan held my feet, Catherine my head, while Judy and Gael gave healing to my pelvis. I visualised golden light steaming into my pelvis where it would fill the space left by my womb, and radiate into the rest of my body When I felt filled and nurtured I suggested that the others receive some of this beautiful healing energy and began to direct it out. We shared the bread and the wine, put the energy raised by the ceremony into the central candle, and blew it out, sending healing thoughts for peace in the world. In closing down I moved anti-clockwise to thank and release the directions and unwind the psychic protection of the circle. Saluting and honouring the East, each participant left the circle by the West gate. The ceremony had lasted one and half hours.
The ritual completed my grieving for my womb. I left the room with a strong sense of the golden light in my pelvis and had no further thoughts of loss. It became clear that the ritual was the final letting go process and I did not need either to see my womb post-op or do another ritual after the operation, although I had been open to both these possibilities. I was surprised and initially did not quite trust that it could, in a way, be that simple.
Planning a Ritual
Do your ritual when you feel ready. I think that it helps to do something in advance of the operation, but this may not work for everyone; an alternative may be to have an initial ceremony pre-op followed by another a few days or weeks after the operation. Especially when cancer is diagnose as the operation may be performed only days after the diagnosis is given, so there may be no time to prepare a ritual. Moreover, the state of shock that intervenes usually prohibits planning and often logical thinking.
You may be reading this now and regretting not having had a letting go ceremony perhaps it is still relevant. If we did not get the chance to grieve at the time we may still be carrying unshed tears and unsaid words. I noticed tears in Teresas eyes as she spoke of her hysterectomy at the age of 35 for intractable bleeding. I didn’t grieve really. Everyone said I should just be grateful to the surgeon for saving my life, and anyway I had two children and did not need my womb anymore. I pushed my unacceptable feelings down and smiled instead. It still hurts when I think of it. When planning a ritual it is important that what you do feels right to you. So often, almost unconsciously, we do what we think other people expect of us. How many of us had the wedding ceremony that was most meaningful for us? It is also important to say the words aloud. If you are not used to speaking out you may feel silly it doesn’t matter, do it any way. Our words have power. So take a deep breath, stand tall, and let yourself be heard! Never mind if everyone ends up in giggles that lovely positive energy from your friends adds to the power. Ritual does not need to be formal or serious.
A Ritual Checklist
- When? Is there a particular day or date that feels important? My birthday was a few days before my operation.
- What time? If you are not sure when, sunrise and sunset are beautiful times to choose.
- Who with? Do you want to be alone or with chosen others? Let your intuition guide you.
- Where? Indoors or out? Follow your feeling, within the bounds of reality the pyramids or Mt Shasta may have potent energy but be impractical for a Wednesday afternoon.
How? What form do you want the ceremony to take? Decide first what accoutrements you want; candle, flowers, pictures, crystals, water, incense, a statue, poems or songs? Perhaps you would like to give or receive gifts. Will you need lighting, a tape player, cushions, chairs, an altar or focal point? You may like everyone to wear something special or particular colours. Will any participants be taking on roles such as gatekeeper, handmaiden? Would it be appropriate to receive healing from those present or to ask others to send distant healing or would you like to send healing to someone? Perhaps to all those women with breast cancer at this time. Do you want to call on particular energies to come and support your ritual? Remember you can also ask other friends who can’t be there to link in with you by lighting a candle, saying a prayer or blessing.
I hope these suggestions may inspire you to create your own ceremonies. Not only for operations but for the many losses and transitions that we experience on our lives paths. I wish you bright blessings and good journey.
Sara Miller is a Holistic Medical Doctor and Healer. She edited Women’s bodies Women’s wisdom by Christine Northrup MD and runs Woman to Woman in Bristol. She facilitates workshops on Healing, Death and Dying and Women’s Empowerment and is on the staff of the Bristol Cancer Help Centre, and a tutor for the College of Healing. This article is an extract from her book “Transforming Medical Experiences”.