Grieving is a spiritual practice? I believe it is and it’s one we often try to cut short, but it’s time to reevaluate grieving, it’s time to give it it’s due. I mean, even Jesus wept.
I’ve learned a lot about grief, personally and in my work as a hospice counselor. I guess if I had to summarize what I’ve learned about grief, I would say: White, non-Jewish Americans don’t have the practices in place to support a grieving process that allows the body, mind and spirit of a person to truly heal after a loss.
Grieving is a beautiful, natural outcome of loss, but we just don’t know how to make space for it in our culture. Let me give some examples of grief I’ve seen in white, non-Jewish families and then compare them to that of other cultures.
I attended a death yesterday of the husband/father of a beautiful family that was quite typical in this way. When the father died, the mother rushed everyone out of the room while the funeral home attendant loaded the body onto a gurney, covered him completely with a blanket and took him out to an awaiting van. It was all very quiet. Then the wife looked at me with a blank expression and asked, “What do we do now?”
Typically, in these kinds of families, what happens next is a flurry of activity. Family and friends are called, the house is cleaned, insurances companies are informed, death certificates are ordered, funeral arrangements made, and the bereft has to make a million small decisions. This process takes about a week, maybe two. Then the funeral comes, an hour of remembrance about the loved one, and that’s it. Now you are expected to go back to work or life — as if your world didn’t just explode.
In a Jewish death, people observe Shiva: the mirrors are covered and people gather to sit with you at your house for a week to offer condolences. Often the dead body is lovingly washed by family. A candle burns in the home and everyone wears a black torn ribbon to symbolize grief. A Jewish friend of mine said when a family experiences a loss, they can turn down social invitations for a year without any bad feelings; I think that is beautiful.
My hospice agency had a Latino family who lost a beloved sister, and when we went to pronounce the death, the house was packed full of friends and family, weeping, wailing and eating together. Death in the Latino community is a communal affair. No one grieves alone. This is true in many other cultures and I believe communal grieving is extremely helpful in allowing the natural process of grief to occur. Grief can receive its full expression and is not cut short.
We need some rituals for our grieving. In the Hebrew Scriptures, grieving is taken seriously. There are psalms called Psalms of Lament and an entire book called Lamentations. Sadly these two sets of scripture have been removed from many modern prayer books. It’s as if we are afraid to give expression to our grief and we choose instead to “suck it up and be strong.” In my opinion, this leads to prolonged/unresolved grief and unhealthy bodies that have to carry unexpressed grief.
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
How can we learn to grieve well?
- Realize that loss is a natural part of life. Not just death, but any kind of loss: loss of a job, loss of a friend, loss of a pet, loss of your health…
- Lament is another name for deep grief. Cultures that lament together heal together. As a culture, we have a lot of things we need to lament together to heal our nation: let’s start with the loss of our national unity, or our failure to end racism or systemic injustice. What would it be like to lament that together? Might that be a starting place for the healing of our nation?
- Make room for grief in your life and give yourself permission to grieve. Take naps, wear waterproof mascara, eat chocolate, lower your expectations…
- Invite people into your grief so that you don’t have to grieve alone. Friends don’t know what to say to a grieving person but they usually want to help. Let them in on how you’re doing, accept offers of food, chores, and company.
- Brainstorm, in advance how you want to respond to grief so that you have some ideas/structures in place to help. There are many grief groups, generally offered by hospitals and hospices; those are important, especially if you don’t have family or friends who understand what you are going through.
- Remember that everyone grieves differently. There is no rule book to follow and those unhelpful reminders by others to, “get on with it,” are just that: unhelpful. It’s okay to stand up for your right to grieve in your own way.
We need to create new rituals to allow for grief. What new ways can we allow ourselves to heal through the power of grief? Are there ways that we can facilitate healthy grieving through art, music, or dance? How can religious/spiritual organizations help create these spaces? What can you add to the discussion? I’d love to hear ideas about how we can help each other grieve more freely.
For more spiritual practices check out my newest book, The Retreat: A Tale of Spiritual Awakening.