Patrick Swayze and wife Lisa Niemi in 2005 (Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images for AFI) Boarding a flight, Lisa Niemi pulled out her phone and texted "I love you" to her husband. It was a sentiment she'd often shared with her partner of 34 years, actor Patrick Swayze. And even though he'd lost his battle to pancreatic cancer a year ago this week, she wasn't ready to give it up. "Either somewhere out there he received [the message], or someone's going, 'Somebody loves me!' And you know what? I figured it was a win-win situation," revealed Niemi in an interview with People Magazine.
While sending text messages to a deceased loved one may not seem like a standard part of the mourning process, there's no guidebook for grief.
"I have a client who never turned off her husband's cell phone after he died. She takes comfort in calling his voice mail to hear him speak," says Claire Bidwell Smith, M.A., L.P.C., a hospice and bereavement specialist. "Rituals and routines like that are actually healthy in confronting your emotions and can hold a person in a secure place for longer."[Related: 'Dirty Dancing' co-star takes inspiration from Swayze]
Actress Michelle Williams echoed the sentiment in the months after Heath Ledger's death. "I wish we had rituals about grief," she said in an interview with Vogue. "I wish it were still the Victorian times, and we could go from black to gray to mauve to pink, and have rings with hair in them."
Instead, Williams found some solace in her upstate New York garden. "[A friend] got me gardening in the spring, and that's when it started to turn around...I remember being on my hands and knees. The ground was cold and muddy. I pushed back the dead leaves and saw the bright green shoots of spring. Under all this decay something was growing," she said. "Caring for the garden reminded me to care for myself."
That was something Williams had neglected to do in the weeks after Ledger's fatal overdose, "I was severely accident-prone...I fell downstairs, broke a toe, put my fingers in a blender," she confided. "I was holding it together by a string and a paper clip...I didn't know if I could keep it all together."
Jennifer Hudson described a similar fugue state after the grave murder of her mother, brother and nephew in 2008. "It's all a blur, it was surreal," Hudson explained in a VH1 interview. "It was like I was outside of myself." To cope, she took to routine prayers. "I prayed when I'd get up in the morning and prayed before I laid down at night."
For Gwyneth Paltrow her own hair became a way of coping with the loss of her father in 2002.
"When my dad died I didn't want to cut it off. I think it was because it was the hair he knew," she divulged in a 2008 press interview. "One day I was on a shoot and I just suddenly said, 'I need to cut it now.' It was almost as if it was part of the grieving process. I just had to let something go." Her impulse decision took six years to make.
Part of the struggle comes from the fact that there's no time-line for the pain. Secret habits and rituals born out of loss can carry over for decades, even to the point where it becomes second nature.
"After a while you worry that the pain will pass and you'll stop missing them, so you keep these connections," says hospice and bereavement specialist Smith.
Smith's familiarity with the process is more than clinical. When her mother, a talented chef, passed away, the Chicago native taught herself to tackle her mother's recipes.
"Cooking was a big part of her physical presence so when she was gone, so were the wonderful smells that reminded me of her. It was like losing one of my senses," says Smith who now features her mother's dishes on her blog.
Brooke Berman, author of the new memoir "No Place Like Home," found similar solace through her mother's passion for clothes. "She kept everything in remarkable condition -- sweaters in sweater bags, shoes in boxes, jewelry tucked away in Tiffany's boxes." After her death, Berman spent a year dressed in her mother's belongings. "I had a pair of her sunglasses adapted with my prescription lenses. I wore her socks every day. I wore scarves and gloves, to keep warm that winter. I'd tell myself it was my mom keeping me warm. It completed my relationship with her, or possibly continued it."
In the wake of Brittany Murphy's death, her grieving mother, Sharon, admitted to sleeping in her daughter's marital bed every night, beside Murphy's widower, Simon Monjack. The unconventional arrangement may have seemed bizarre, but it wasn't all that different from Berman inhabiting her mother's wardrobe.[Related: Husband sacrifices life for his pregnant wife]
Unfortunately, these cathartic gestures are often partnered with shame. On one online grief forum, members anonymously share their unusual habits: buying annual Christmas presents for a deceased father, doing word puzzles once relished by a mother, calling non-working numbers just to go through the motions of contacting a lost friend. All members then pose the same question: "Is this normal?"
But nothing is normal in grief and no two mourners are the same. Some people find it helpful to broadcast their memories to a wide audience. YouTube is flooded with memorial montages. Even Angelina Jolie and her brother, James Haven, created a web video tribute of their mother three years after her death. Others would rather pay tribute in private. Kelly Preston, who planned to participate in a recent panel discussion on grief, canceled at the last minute, releasing the statement: "I am still deeply in the process of healing, and it's just too soon."
There is no uniform approach to loss. "The only thing that's common is the feeling you're losing your mind," says Smith. "But once you share your coping rituals, however odd they may feel, you'll find you're not alone and not crazy at all. Then, you can start moving forward."