I once heard about a widow who, when a friend referred to the sudden death of her husband as “a tragedy,” she responded, “What’s the point in calling it a tragedy?” The friend sputtered a bit, unable to explain their answer. The widow said, “I refuse to live in tragedy.”
I thought of this conversation when I met my writing mentor a month after my mother died. I was 28 and completing the first year of my master’s program, struggling through what it meant to finish my courses and complete my thesis: a draft of a novel inspired by my mother’s life. I spilled all these questions to the calm novelist who had invited me into her spacious city home and was handing me a mug of peppermint tea. I was visibly in shock, she would tell me months later. But for now she said, “It’s a tragedy. An absolute tragedy.” I nodded along.
Perhaps because she was an experienced writer, a contemplative person who had spent her career observing and describing stages of life, she could say it with such compassionate authority. And I needed that authority, to hear the lament of my experience declared from the mouth of a person I had just met. I needed the permission to be in the state I was in, to give myself grace and to know someone was sitting with me, in a sun-streaked writing studio, in the knowledge that I was suffering greatly. I needed people to enter into my grief with me.
Despite this and other people’s support and validation of my loss, I still couldn’t quite recognize the depth of grief around me. I needed to do my job, be there for my family, and complete my studies. Grief got in the way, so I pushed it aside when I could, struggling to concentrate on my readings for school, spending many nights lying awake for hours, foolishly confused about where the insomnia was coming from.
I think sometimes we are so afraid of being defined by our grief or by our suffering that we try to avoid its presence in our lives. Our culture has stigmatized “being negative,” “Debbie downers,” “throwing pity parties,” and people who “live in the past.” Our fears of bringing the people around us, or ourselves, down emotionally can lead us to avoid the pain of loss we experience in life.
Furthermore, in a culture driven by production, happiness, and entertainment, grief feels counter-productive. Lament feels futile. As soon as grief begins to beckon me to hear it out, all the cliché voices rise up to talk over its soft call. It doesn’t do any good to dwell on the negative, they say. Look on the bright side. There’s no sense dwelling on the past. Get better, not bitter. So we internalize our grief or try to avoid dwelling on it at all.
The problem with our dismissal of grief is that it is the natural and appropriate response to the brokenness of our world. In their bestselling book Burnout, sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski explain how, when we try to avoid or ignore painful emotions and stress, the stress hormones manifest in our bodies and create inflammation and a number of potential long-term health concerns.
A God Who Grieves
We are made in the image of a God who grieves, regardless of how much Western Christians have tried to deny this reality. Biblical scholar Sylvia Keesmaat points out that, because grief was not perceived by the ancient Greeks as a rational emotion fitting of a god, the Hebrew word for grief is often translated as anger by the translators of the Septuagint (the original Greek translation of the Old Testament). For example, in her book Paul and His Story: (Re)Interpreting the Exodus Tradition (Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), Keesmaat identifies two places where the translation differs between the Hebrew and the Septuagint: in Isaiah 63:10 where the Hebrew says, "But (Israel) rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit" the Greek word translates to “provoked;” and Psalm 78.40 says in Hebrew, "They grieved him in the desert," while the Greek translation states, "They angered him in the desert." There are other examples throughout the Old Testament where this takes place, for instance before the flood God is grieved for having created humankind. This translation of the Septuagint has shaped our understanding of God as someone who is quicker to anger than sadness. Rage is seen as a proper emotion for the powerful; grief is perceived as a sensitive, weak, impotent emotion.
What, then, does it mean to follow a God who can be deeply grieved by the world, a Savior who wept multiple times during his life on earth? What does it mean to be shaped by Scripture when at least 40% of the hymns of our sacred texts are lament, and 70% contain elements of lament? Furthermore, what does it mean as a church to provide opportunities to grieve together?
To follow a God of grief in a capitalist, purpose-driven, product-orientated society means being counter cultural. It means making space for the soul-wrenching recognition of what is not right in the world, bringing light to the areas of life our culture would rather leave in the shadows. Collective lament allows us, as my writing mentor did years ago, to put words to grief we cannot articulate on our own.
God is not found in simply looking on the bright side, as we keep our chins up and find the silver lining. God is found in the reality of our suffering, in knowing that despite the brokenness of our world, we are not alone.
When I think back to the year my mother died, I remember how deeply I struggled with my faith. In the midst of my doubts and frustration, I stopped going to church. One cold day during Advent, I visited a worship service hosted by the CRC campus ministry at my university. They opened with U2’s song “Peace on Earth.” I fought back tears as the worship leader sang.
Heaven on earth
We need it now
I'm sick of all of this
Sick of sorrow
Sick of pain
Sick of hearing again and again
That there's gonna be
Peace on earth
I found that day a community that knew how to lament, a place where we could come together and grieve the injustices of our world, the destruction and greed, where we could repent and cry out together, How long, O Lord? In this community, I could truly grieve my mother’s death. And because of the authenticity of this group of Christ-followers, because of their recognition of pain and brokenness in this life, our resurrection hope was fuller, stronger, and truer than I had known before.
We have lost so much throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: friends, jobs, careers, events, opportunities, health, communities. Now as we slowly move toward some sort of normal, we might be tempted to blow past the grief, to return to business as usual, to move forward. But we are still bumping up against the things we lost in this time. It is important to allow ourselves to recognize and grieve what we have missed. As churches reopen and slowly return to life as normal, we have an opportunity to continue in a Biblical tradition of communal lament, to provide worship spaces where we can raise our voices to articulate our pain and brokenness before a God who grieves with us.