Limb-Loss Ritual Helps Amputees Heal

During the early stages of the COVID pandemic, Dr. Arnold Hoskins was overwhelmed by the sheer scale of loss he encountered.

“I did more funerals in those two years than I have in my entire career as a minister,” says Hoskins, a hospital chaplain who leads the spiritual care department at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Chicago. The wave of burials caused Hoskins to reflect deeply on grief, and on the critical role that rituals play in sparking the transition from mourning to healing.

“I was so moved by it that I wrote an article about managing grief,” Hoskins says. The first step, he wrote, is to identify a source of internal strength and leverage it. “Your source of inner strength could be meditation,” he says. “It could be music. It could be your family. It could be your church. It could be anything. But you want to start there.”

The same principle applies whether you’re grieving the loss of a loved one or the loss of a limb. So when Hoskins arrived at Marianjoy a couple of years ago, he developed a formal service—Ritual for the Loss of a Limb—to help new amputees absorb their grief, tap into their strengths, and start to generate some forward momentum.

“It’s time that’s aside to acknowledge someone’s loss, normalize their feelings, build confidence in their rehabilitation, and help them forge ahead on their new journey,” Hoskins says.

Designed to accommodate individuals of all faiths (including those who are nonreligious), the limb-loss ritual begins with a candle-lighting, symbolically projecting rays of hope into a moment of darkness. Each participant is offered the chance to express pain, hope, anger, determination, fear, and whatever other emotions they’re navigating in the early stages of recovery.

“The purpose is to facilitate a community of support and empowerment,” Hoskins says. By articulating their feelings and listening to the experience of others, patients can begin to construct a sense of order amid the chaos. “We had one person not long ago who told me, ‘It helped me channel my anger. I was so mad when I lost my leg. I was mad at the world. Being here with other patients helped give me some peace and recognize that I still have my life. I can still live.’”

The service concludes with each patient breaking off a piece of an aloe plant.

“The aloe plant is really a survivor,” Hoskins explains. “It can tolerate any kind of environmental stress. It may go dormant for a time, waiting for more favorable conditions where it can re-emerge. And as you know, there’s a liquid inside an aloe plant that’s used a lot in first-aid kits. You can put that on a burn, and it will soothe it. So this is the parting gift we give to each person. The aloe plant is resilient. It bounces back.”

While Marianjoy’s ceremony serves new amputees, Hoskins believes a limb-loss ritual can help someone at any stage of their journey. “There’s no timetable for grieving,” he notes. A ritual needn’t be held in a formal setting or officiated by an ordained minister. The key is to identify your source(s) of inner strength, and build your ritual around that.

“It’s just like changing a flat tire,” Hoskins says. “You’re gonna find the crowbar in the trunk that lets you lift up that car so you can put the spare on. You want to find a source of strength to lift yourself up.”

“It’s never too late,” he adds. “Rehabilitation is a process. It takes time to work through it.”

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