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Finding the Good in Grief

by Terra McDaniel

One August afternoon, my mother-in-law accidentally set our house on fire. The temperature was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), and there was a drought. The fire hydrant near our home turned out to be broken, which made it necessary to connect with another one much farther away—that ruined any chance of saving our home. Recovering and rebuilding after that tragedy and countless other heartbreaks over the past decade, I have learned to lament.

I don’t believe anyone just wakes up one day with some inescapable wish to grieve. People don’t study it because of its intrinsic interest. We don’t want to engage it experientially because of its natural appeal. It’s the kind of thing that most of us, me included, resist. Lament tends to be a last resort because it involves pain and loss and unanswerable questions.

We turn to lament when life demands it. When there is nothing else to do but sprinkle dust in our hair, rip off (and maybe tear up) garments of normalcy or celebration, and let our tears fall.

Lament Is Essential

Lament tells the truth about what is. It refuses to ignore pain and injustice. It won’t turn its face away from the realities of losing something or someone precious. It is an expression of love. Lament allows sorrow to be expressed, both to honor beloveds we’ve lost and to honor the gap left in our communities and our souls by their absence.

In the apparently ever-expanding Marvel universe, a quirky series called WandaVision was released in early 2021, which at first glance appears to be nothing more than a nostalgic dance through the history of sitcoms starring two superheroes. It turned out to be a thoughtful and timely means of addressing grief.

When Vision, attempting to comfort Wanda as she spoke of feeling overwhelmed by her brother’s death, asked, “What is grief, if not love persevering?” the moment went viral. Many called it the defining moment of the series. It’s no mystery why those words resonated profoundly: Wanda’s experience echoed what was happening in the world.

Like Wanda, we have been grieving. You and those you love have lived through your own losses, large and small. My heart has been heavy for loved ones carrying extraordinary weights of loss and grief.

Some of you reading this have experienced the death of a loved one and are learning how to survive with the ache of their absence. Some of you are living on the other side of a heartbreaking divorce. Or you’re enduring the more hidden grief of infertility or miscarriage, or a painful season of parenting when the energy and means to love your child well has been hard to find. Some of you love someone who is struggling with addiction or mental illness. You have been betrayed in your work or hurt by a church community. Some of you are being invited to bring past abuse into healing light. Others are waking up to what is yours to do to address systemic racism or human trafficking or unhoused neighbors or the ways people are harming the earth; or you’re healing from the personal experience of one of those horrors. Some are living with the kind of heartache that is difficult even to whisper out loud.

You’re living with pain and loss that touches many areas of your world, making the hard but good work of lament all the more essential but also more difficult and complex.

Lamenting What We’ve Lived Through Together

Beyond the undeniable weight of personal tragedies is what we’ve lived through together. The past years have been exhausting with crisis piling upon crisis.

We need to know how to lament. We need to know it is possible to engage safely, that grief can be practiced in a way that does not overpower but rather frees us. If we refuse to lament, we will not be able to move on without carrying brokenness, or trauma, that will replay unprocessed pain in and around us. Lament is about giving grief—and the love hidden within it—a way to be expressed so that it doesn’t end up doing violence to us or those around us. In that way, lament is a life-affirming gift.

How We Forgot Lament

But many of us in the West have forgotten how to lament. It didn’t happen overnight.

There is no doubt that our widespread amnesia with respect to lament also has to do with the obsession with forward thinking and positivity that characterized much of the twentieth century in the West. The belief that humanity was destined to keep getting better was shaken but not broken by things like the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, and two world wars. Along with an overreliance on optimism, a resistance to and even denial of negative emotions grew within parts of the church as well as the larger culture.

But loss and suffering and uncertainty are part of life. To deny the hard ultimately also diminishes the beautiful. In the Christian story, death comes before resurrection.

Lament refuses to bury pain or, just as dangerous, to give in to despair. It is an ancient practice lost in many modern contexts, at least among grownups who feel awkward wailing in public. And it’s essential to embrace in a season of abundant loss and pain. Grief is sometimes framed as negativity or immature faith, but it is vital we be present to sorrow before healing can be sustainable.

Engaging Lament

It is high time to reclaim the gift many of us have lost. We must rediscover what has been forgotten. Some, particularly among the marginalized and oppressed, never lost the practice of lamenting because the realities of their lives didn’t allow it. Part of the good work ahead will be to continue learning from the hard-won wisdom of those who have faced grief head on. And for all of us, it is to remember that God welcomes the full range of our experience. It’s human to celebrate. And it’s just as human to grieve when there’s suffering or injustice. Lament is more than mentally acknowledging the reality of loss or pain. It’s holding our grief and letting ourselves fully experience it instead of numbing or ignoring it, hoping it will go away. It’s about tuning into the emotional and embodied experience of heartache and bringing all of that into the loving presence of the Holy.

Adaptation from Hopeful Lament by Terra McDaniel. ©2023 by Terra McDaniel. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.


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