Good Grief! (Reflections on Loss and Lament)
Updated: Jan 19
Do you ever pause to consider what has been lost throughout the time that COVID has dominated the headlines? My concern is that when we find ourselves in times of restrictions, that we’re merely in ‘countdown mode’ awaiting the day that they’re lifted, and once they are, we’re in so much of a rush to ‘get on and catch up’ that we don’t pause to ponder what’s been lost.
This post is meant to be read as part of pair, but it’s the first one, so I can’t link to its accomplice yet. These two blog posts, though, reflect some of my thinking over the last several weeks concerning what has been lost and how we respond to that.
When we were resumed in-person contact with restrictions significantly reduced, a number of people commented on how much my son had grown. He has, he’s shot up in the two years since many saw him last (a screen doesn’t provide much insight into how much someone’s grown…unless you get a bigger screen!) In that time, he’s completed his Primary School days and embarked upon a new adventure at High School. Many who have been invested in his growth have missed out on seeing him grow through those phases, like they have for the many other children and young people in our church.
We’ve missed out on weddings and funerals; On the chance to say final farewells to people we’ve known and loved for a long time. We’ve missed the chance to hold new-born babies due to visiting restrictions. We’ve lost the opportunity to sing together in church services for long periods. We’ve missed out on the everyday support we give and receive in the workplace or the college classroom. We’ve missed out on laughs over a drink with friends, and tears in the painful chapters of one another’s’ lives.
It has, in many, many ways, been a time of loss. I read a lot from various church leaders about what we’ve also gained (and I agree; that’s what the other blog is about), but simply because there are some new opportunities, some ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ moments around at the moment, they don’t do away with the grief and sorrow that we rightly feel in light of everything that has been lost.
At this time of continuing uncertainty, I find myself drawn regularly to the uniquely biblical idea of lament.
There’s nothing unique to the experience of sadness and sorrow, but to lament is different. To lament is to recognise that the pain and anguish that we’re going through is a reflection that deep down, things are not as they’re meant to be. This world, this life is not as it’s meant to be. Creation itself groans in the constant, unrelenting ache of things not being as they’re meant to be. To lament, then, is to begin to voice our recognition – prompted by the pain of loss and the pang of sorrow – that all is not well.
Some people like to pretend it is.
Some people like to gloss over things and paint on a happy face, but to do so is to deny the very real experience of grief of the widow who lost her husband of many years or the sadness of a new grandfather who didn’t get to hold their new-born baby grandchild until weeks had passed.
All is not well. All is not as it was intended to be.
Lament is the recognition of this and our voicing of it to God.
How do you get on when it comes to voicing sadness, frustration and other similar emotions to God? Let me tell you how I get on… terribly. I prefer to talk to God about things that are tidily concluded and neat. Things that are positive. Things that I can see beginning to come to a happy resolution.
But that isn’t the pattern we see in the Bible. Instead, we’re presented with one extra-large hymnbook in which over one-third of the Psalms (hymns, or prayers) are an expression of lament. We’d do well to learn from that and, dare I say, rediscover what it is to lament both personally and in our times together.
Psalm 42 is a great example.
We find there the Psalmist’s recognition of his desperate longing for God which follows a lengthy period where his tears have been so many that it’s been like it was food to him. For reasons not included in the Psalm, the Psalmist isn’t able to do the things he’s always done. Something is not the way it once was. And his emotional state in response? He’s fed up. He’s downcast.
And here he is, before God. There’s no attempt to sanitise things to try and impress God. There’s no holding back the bits that seem as though they’re less than desirable to God. He pours it out.
I want to suggest four things that we can learn about lament which might shape our approach to things when the going gets tough and we don’t know which way is up.
First, lament evidences a healthy relationship with God.
The Psalmist in Psalm 42 is taking his complaint to God Himself. Do you know that God longs for you to take your pain and struggle to Him in the midst of heartbreak and confusion? Do you realise He’s more than big enough to hear all of your outpourings without feeling the need to defend himself or give account of himself. Have you learnt the safety and the peace that comes from telling your Heavenly Father every painful way that your life confirms that thigns are not as they were meant to be?
I remember there were times as a young man when my dad would hug me and hold me tight whilst I wept. Some of the tears were tears around my own stupidity, some were a deep recognition that things were not as they were meant to be. Sometimes, I didn’t even get to put things into words before I broke down, but my dad did the same: held, hugged and bore my snot marks on his shirt.
I love my dad, and I’m grateful to God for him, but I think he’d be quite happy to recognise that whilst he can serve to illustrate a point, there’s a quick end to the similarities between him and God. If my dad can nurse me through life’s painful moments like this, how much more so our Heavenly Father?
Second, lament is an intimate act birthed in honesty.
To share the pain and struggle you find yourself in with another is not a trivial thing. It’s not something you do lightly. We do a decent line, often, in praying prayers that declare truth about God. Good. We also do a reasonable job of praying prayers of request. Also good. But they’re quite safe things to do; things we can be transactional in our approach to. To know the comfort of God in the midst of pain generally involves us allowing Him into the pain.
We can’t kid God that everything is alright. We can’t ‘fake it until we make it’ before the One who knows us better than we know ourselves, but we can choose to trust Him enough to be honest with Him. Maybe you’ve never spoken to God in ways like the Psalmist does. If not, pause for a moment and consider why not? Are you scared that the relationship won’t bear the weight of that level of honesty? Do you hold a latent fear that if you were honest with God, He’d reject you or treat you harshly? It may be that your lack of willingness to engage honestly with God reveals something about your heart’s hidden view of God. Is He really your good, good Father like you sing or do you deep down struggle to trust Him and entrust yourself to Him? Maybe this is a moment in which you can allow Him to reveal your own heart to you; it may be that He wants to use this to heal some things that are wounded in there.
Third, to lament is neither defeatist nor hopeless.
Just because you verbalise how wrong things seem to be, and your own recognition that this world is out of kilter, it doesn’t mean you’ve given up faith or hope. Quite the opposite. See, to lament healthily is to look beyond the here and now. Lament is as powerful as it is because it contrasts our here and now with a day when everything will be as it’s meant to be. A day when disease and are banished, health and wholeness are forever, and our enjoyment of the presence of God is uninterrupted.
To lament is to remind God – not that He’s forgotten – that He has promised to restore and to make new. To lament is to remind ourselves that no matter how horrific the now, a glorious future awaits. It’s the absolute opposite of hopeless, it’s hope-stirring. It lifts my eyes and adds a ‘yet’ to my list of troubles. NT Wright puts it beautifully: “…a lament is an appeal to God on the basis of His character.” Yes, things may be tough. Yes, the struggle is real… yet… I will trust I the Lord.
It’s where the Psalmist turns as he preaches to himself: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him.” The situations of loss and missing out are not the final word, and lament points us upwards and spurs us onwards to Jesus.
Fourth, lament can be a powerful ‘together’ thing.
Maybe you’ve made it through the COVID era with relatively little personal loss. Praise God. But the act of lamenting is a means of grace which makes iit so that you can enter into someone else’s sorrow and join them in that. A friend who was prone to a negative outlook once said “Misery loves company.” I don’t know about that, but I do know that feeling overwhelmed with sorrow and regret can feel like a lonely place. To lament gives you an opportunity to stand in a shared space with someone and to effectively say ‘I may not be able to feel things the way you do, but I’m standing with you in recognising that all is not as it’s meant to be.’ It’s a means of carrying the load with a person, empathising with them in their pain.
And for the lament-ee, it’s an opportunity to allow someone in to you’re struggle and heartache. It’s a chance to be vulnerable with another and allow them to stand with you before God and give voice to the fact that your pain tells them that the world is not as it’s meant to be, and to remind you – and themselves – that one day, it will be unimaginably better.
So, what shall we do?
Very briefly - three very practical steps to begin to explore the practise of lament:
Stop telling yourself everything is alright. Stop telling everyone else everything is alright and stop telling God everything is alright. We probably all know it isn’t, certainly not all of the time, so be honest. You don’t need to share chapter and verse with every single person, but find those who you can answer the question ‘how are you doing?’ honestly with. Be honest.
Let go of the need to know how things end before you tell God about the mess they’ve been. Let go of the fear of God abandoning you if He really knew how you felt. Guess what? He already knows! And guess what else? He loves you despite it. Let go.
Give voice to the things you’re struggling with. Put it into words – tell God what He already knows. Tell him when it feels hard, when it feels like it hurts, when it feels overwhelming. Don’t worry that ‘your issue isn’t as important as theirs’ – if it matters to you, tell God. Give voice and listen back as He speaks His words of hope and peace to you, even in the middle of the mess.
To lament is a hugely rewarding thing to do. Hear this permission to talk to God in honest, vulnerable ways. You won’t surprise Him with what comes out, but you may surprise yourself.