Some life events don't have a ritual to help us through them: the end of a marriage, abortion, family trauma. Esther Oxford meets people who have made up their own rites of passage
John Gordon, 49, works as a counsellor in Winchester. He has two children and is just about to divorce after 20 years of marriage. I didn't want to separate from my wife. When she told me she was going to leave, I said: "If you go, it will kill me". It nearly did. I developed cancer of the kidneys because of the enormous stress.

I've always believed that if you love somebody, you should let them go; they will come back if they love you. I waited for my wife to come back but she didn't. It became very important for me to break the bond. I felt I would die if I didn't.

Three days before she left, I asked her to do a ritual with me. I wanted to do it properly - with candles and music and atmosphere. But she was nervous. She was full of the leaving.

We did it in the morning in the living room when there was no one about. We made these two big circles of string. We both stood in them and said: "I release you totally. I release you from the bonds that were agreed on. I release you from all responsibility for me". Both of us were holding a pair of scissors. We cut the string, moved our circles away from each other, then picked up the circles. That was it. We took the string away. I burnt mine. I don't know what she did with hers.

Breaking the bond has been an on-going effort. I've done a series of rituals to try to break the invisible connection. I'm still doing them four years later, usually on my own.

One of the most effective rituals I do is when I visualise the disconnection. I think about a rope with hooks on it that is somehow attached to me. By visualising the connection, I can see where it is attached to my body. Then I physically take hold of the rope and hand it back to my wife and see her taking it back. It gives me a tremendous sense of relief.

The rituals bring clarity. I am able to think: "Yes, that was a beautiful experience. We were together for 20 years. But I must move on". The rituals also release me from the beliefs my partner had of me, which inevitably I took on. Namely, the guilt.

She made me feel that the break-up of the marriage was my fault. I was the one who had the affairs, she said. But for me, things weren't going well in the marriage. I wanted us to be honest with each other, to be vulnerable, caring and to talk about what was going on between us. But she was afraid of where these talks would lead us. So we just stopped talking.

Now I am in another relationship. We hold these rituals where we release each other. I say to her: "You are completely free. You don't have to make choices just because you are in a partnership". By releasing each other, we strengthen our relationship.

I would like to have one last ritual with my wife. I want to acknowledge times passed. I would want her to be more involved than before, to say things that we haven't managed to say yet. But I have a feeling she will say no.

I decided I had to cut off my father's hands. Without them, he couldn't hurt me

Kate Abbey, 37, works as an osteopath in Nottingham. She has two children by a previous marriage and now lives with a woman.

My father beat me with thick electric flex while I was growing up. He would lock me in the bedroom, chase me round the bed and then thrash my bum, back and thighs. I would scream. But I never remember him saying anything. He didn't even grunt.

It all started after my mother died suddenly, aged 36. When my father remarried 11 months later, his new wife was thrust into the middle of a ready-made family with four adolescent children.

She couldn't cope. If we left a book out of place or invited friends round at an inconvenient time, she would say: "Wait until your father comes home. He will punish you." We'd pace around for hours wondering whether it would be four strokes, eight or 12 - the lashings always came in fours.

One day he went too far. I went into school with 12 bruises on my bum, five on my back, three across the top of my thighs and a huge bruise on the back of my hand. I couldn't write, I couldn't sit. I showed the bruises to a friend, who promptly told her mother. The mother telephoned child welfare. So that evening I was able to go home to my father and say: "No more beatings. The child welfare knows about you".

The beatings stopped. But my hatred for my father didn't. I got married at 18 to escape him. When I was 29 my marriage broke down. I started doing circle dancing and soon became friends with a fantastic woman - she was insightful, intuitive and best of all she was an excellent listener.

I told Suzy about the physical abuse and she suggested ritual as a way of coming to terms with my experience. For eight weeks I practised creative visualisation - I would imagine my father sitting in front of me - quietly, nothing said. Then, when I was ready, Suzy agreed to take me through the ritual.

She laid me down, put me into a relaxed state and told me to visualise my father and the ties that were binding me. I imagined them as strong, hard chains, chains that completely bound me up. Then she told me to imagine cutting them.

I decided I could only break the chains once I had cut my father's hands off. It was my way of feeling safe - he couldn't hurt me without his hands. Then I cut the chains around myself with a powerful wire-cutter.

Some of the chains were made with barbed wire. I was injured by the metal. I decided, in my visualisation, that the wounds needed healing. So I imagined an angel coming down to heal the lacerations.

After that, Suzy told me to think of myself sitting in front of my father. She said I should tell him everything I needed to say. When I had finished I felt confident enough to heal my father's hands. I understood by that point that those hands would never hurt me again.

For the final part of the ritual I imagined a beautiful river with a waterfall. I was by the water, taking off my clothes. I lowered myself into the river, washed, then climbed out on to the other side. There, new clothes awaited me. I put them on. I was a new person with no more scars.

I felt very different after that experience. I felt free from all that hurting. I did not hate my father any more.

Since then I have talked about the beatings with my father. He said they were justifiable: I was naughty, I had to be disciplined. When we talked I could see that he was desperately upset by the hurt he had caused me. There is still a deep sadness in his eyes. He knows he screwed up. He feels frustrated that there is nothing he can do to change the past. But I know now that he loves me.

A pink crystal for me, blue for my husband and orangey-red for my baby

Janice Timmins, 44, is a herbalist from Wiltshire. She has two children. She became pregnant at 40 and had an abortion. She is now divorced.

When I told my husband I was pregnant, he upped and went. "I can't go on with this", he said. "What you do with the baby is your decision".

I felt terribly alone - my eldest child was away at university; my youngest was 10 - too young to be burdened. So for three weeks I wrapped myself in a duvet and talked to the baby inside me. I explained to her (I sensed it was a daughter) why I felt that I couldn't go through with the pregnancy. I told her our house might be repossessed; that at 40 I felt too old to be a mother again. Not a day passed when I didn't cry.

I'd seen aborted foetuses floating in bottles inside laboratories. I knew that at 12 weeks the child would be perfect - every finger there, every toe. But I realised that the baby inside me was just a physical vehicle, a shell. The soul, I decided, was not there until the moment of breath. Still, the guilt was terrible. And the grief.

After the abortion, I felt very raw about how I'd had to go through it on my own. I wanted to hold a ceremony, to acknowledge how difficult the decision had been, to allow me to express my loneliness. Also to let go of my daughter, Amber.

Two women were with me. We sat on floor cushions in a quiet meditation room in a country house, the sun streaming in through stained-glass windows. I picked wild flowers, found some rosemary for remembrance, and made a birthday card for Amber. I also brought three crystals - a pink one representing me, a blue one for my husband and an orangey-red one for my baby.

I lit some candles to formalise the ceremony. I wanted the fire to take away the pain. Then we sat there silently. I tried to visualise the body of my baby. I tried to see it detaching itself from me naturally, not being ripped out of me as it was in the operating theatre.

I thought about my husband, too. He didn't know I was having the ceremony but I held out an open space for him anyway. While I was thinking, a poem came to me. "O Mother Earth let my baby be, safe in your arms yet part of me". It was the only thing I said during the ceremony.

My baby was supposed to be born on 11 May. On that afternoon my stomach started swelling unbelievably. I had these subliminal pains, and for 20 minutes or so I really felt I was going to give birth. I felt joyous, it was as though Amber had been born spiritually. At one point I screamed: "No, no, she is mine!" Tears of happiness poured down my cheeks.

I kept the three crystals. For a while I couldn't look at the orangey- red one. It reminded me of blood, so I hid it on a top shelf. But sometime later I went back to the place where I'd held the ritual and buried the Amber-coloured stone in the earth. I still have the card. And the blue and pink crystals. But the rosemary has since crumbled away.

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