The purpose of ritual: Katelyn's Cross.
Article Type: Column
Subject: Psychologists (Personal narratives)
Author: Fair, David J.
Pub Date: 09/22/2011
Publication: Name: Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association Publisher: American Psychotherapy Association Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 American Psychotherapy Association ISSN: 1535-4075
Issue: Date: Fall-Winter, 2011 Source Volume: 14 Source Issue: 3
Product: Product Code: 8043300 Psychologists NAICS Code: 62133 Offices of Mental Health Practitioners (except Physicians) SIC Code: 8049 Offices of health practitioners, not elsewhere classified
Persons: Named Person: Fair, Chaplain David J.
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 277270206
Full Text: I passed Katelyn's Cross several times daily. I couldn't miss it-blocks from my home, a simple tiny white wooden cross along the roadway. Sometimes there were flowers left by friends or relatives. I was in the habit of dropping off a stuffed bunny or other animal while saying a silent prayer.

I remember vividly the reason for the cross, marking the place of death of a five-year-old blonde-headed girl, a half-mile from home, in her mom's car. So excited to be home, she slipped out from the protection of the seat belt almost at the same moment a car ran a stop sign, striking Katelyn's side of the car.

Often when there is a traumatic death of a child, the medics "work the code," laboring under the intense hope the heart will beat again, if for nothing else but the benefit of the frantic family and friends at the scene, who want to know that everything possible has been done.

I recall walking into the trauma room where endless tubes ran into every orifice and doctors and nurses struggled to bring back a young life. I remember too that the girl on the gurney was my own 5-year-old blonde granddaughter. Or looked just like her--the scene taking my breath away.

A few days after the funeral, someone erected the white wooden cross, and there it had been maintained for at least 10 years. Katelyn would be 15 now.

One day I recently passed the familiar spot near my home. Katelyn's Cross was gone. By some cruel twist of fate, vandals had removed it. Had it been mown over by some careless city worker? Frantically, I looked around, but the cross was gone. No more flowers or stuffed animals. It was like Katelyn had died again.


What is it about ritual that is so important to us, especially when someone dies? Elsewhere in town there is a cross made in Harley Davidson colors and embedded with a logo where a dear friend of mine was killed in a motorcycle accident years ago.

Another incident I recall was the tragic death of a young man. He had just graduated from high school after attending an orphanage most of his life. The day he was to leave for college, he drove to the orphanage to thank the staff and friends. As he pulled onto the highway to leave he was broadsided by a car.

I was asked to conduct the critical incident stress debriefing for the emergency service personnel involved in the fatality. To my surprise someone had invited some of the orphans and staff from the children's home to the debriefing. Due to the situation, age differences, and closeness to the situation, I had to do some fast modifying of our format.

One thing that came to mind was to have the children of the orphanage go back to where the accident happened, by a rock wall, to erect an impromptu monument to his memory. They could bring flowers, teddy bears and whatever else would bring meaning to them. This simple act of ritual was very healing, especially to the younger children.


We have talked mostly about civilian ritual, but some of the most powerful ritual is ritual for first-responder line-of-duty deaths and ritual for military heroes.

In the military, the traditional ritual for a fallen soldier is to place his/her rifle in the ground by "stabbing" the bayonet into the earth. His helmet is then placed on the butt of the rifle and his boots placed in front.

Firefighters, medics, and police officers have similar rituals that utilize the tools of their trade arranged in specific fashion to pay tribute to their fallen comrades.

Now that we have looked at some rituals, the question arises, just what is a ritual? Some of the more common definitions of ritual are as follows:

Rituals are described as established or prescribed procedures, a system or collection of religious or other rites. Rituals can be an observance of set forms, or a ceremony, proceeding, or service or any practice or pattern of behavior regularly performed in a set manner.

A rite is best described as a formal or ceremonial act or procedure prescribed or customary in religious or other solemn use.

Having looked at these definitions, it becomes evident that rites and rituals are types of actions, often ceremonies, usually prescribed and often repeated. They become the familiar. They bring a soothing or a peace to a crisis or traumatic situation.

We often see ritual as a soothing mechanism for autistic children. If you saw the movie "Rain Man," you remember the remarkable performance of Dustin Hoffman as he portrayed an autistic adult. Those who are autistic frequently use a rocking motion as a coping mechanism that tends to sooth and reduce stress. While the practice is automatic in an autistic individual, a grandmother's rocker, with purposeful movement, can accomplish much the same thing for a baby.

It's easy to see that ritual and rites are an important and useful part of our culture. In tragedy, we need a way to relieve the stress and strain of the moment. Time-honored rituals pay a tribute to the deceased, and bring peace to the victims and survivors of trauma.

By Chaplain David J. Fair, PhD, D.Min., CHS-V

DAVID J. FAIR, PhD, CHS-V, CMC, holds a doctorate in pastoral counseling and psychology from Bethel Bible College and Seminary. Chaplain Fair is director of chaplain services for the Police Protective Fund and the CEO of Homeland Crisis Institute. Chaplain Fair has served at dozens of disasters, including Ground Zero following Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the NASA space shuttle disaster, Sri Lanka tsunami, the Fort Hood shootings, and the Haitian earthquake.
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