The following article was available as part of the materials at the Circles of Impact conference in 2019.
Grief is as much a part of life as love. It is woven deeply through the whole of our existence. You could even say that it is ‘natural’, though it feels wrong to do. The experience of grief is so dislocating, strange and abnormal that there is nothing natural about it. It is only ‘natural’ in that it comes to us all, at some point in our lives, jolting us out of our ‘normal’ lives until we fear that nothing will ever be normal again. Despite this, much of the modern western world has lost the language of grief: we struggle to know how to speak of it ourselves or, indeed, how to speak well to others in the grip of bereavement. People seem to veer between saying nothing at all and saying something outrageously crass.
It is easy – and wrong – to say that grief is less painful for people who lived in times, or who do live in places, where death was, and is, more prevalent; that these people are more ‘used’ to death and loss. There is no evidence that quantity of grief ever makes the experience easier or more manageable. What is observable, however, is that in such contexts, the language of grief and the rituals surrounding it become more developed. The grief remains as visceral, but there are words to say, actions to engage with that express the emotion in a way that is lost to many parts of the modern western world.
The Bible is a good example of a culture attuned to grief. It is possible to trace through its pages many different expressions of loss and grief. Many of these are accounts of the loss of a loved one but there are other themes too. There are stories of grief at the death of an enemy; narratives of women who mourn their inability to conceive; expressions of anguish at times of national disaster, and sorrow during periods of illness or another kind of suffering. In what follows we will trace some of these strands, pausing from time to time with vignettes of people or events which express in a particular way something important.
All the way through the Bible we find evidence of people grieving the death of those they had loved. From Abraham in Genesis 23.1- 6, mourning the death of his wife, Sarah, at Hebron, to Joseph in Genesis 50.1-10, weeping for his father, Jacob, who had died; from Naomi grieving the loss of her husband and sons in Ruth 1.12-13, to Job’s devastation at the loss of his sons and daughters when the house they were in collapsed. From the friends and family of Jairus who had begun weeping for the death of Jairus’ daughter even before Jesus had arrived to heal her, to Jesus himself who wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus after his death.
Grief runs throughout the Bible, and with it run practices and rituals that accompany that grief. The rituals of mourning developed throughout the biblical period and it is often hard to know how developed some of the practices were in the early period. Nevertheless, there are strands that can be traced through the Bible, even if they weren’t equally developed in different biblical books.
The most obvious practice of mourning was wailing or weeping. Indeed, the word most often used when people began to mourn can be translated as ‘wailed’. Ululating – wailing or howling in grief – occurs in many cultures, both ancient and modern, across the world and symbolises the raw pain that people feel in grief. People would gather from across the community when someone died to wail for their loss. Their wailing was seen as a sign of respect. Indeed, the implication of the story of the healing of Jairus’ daughter was that people were so convinced of her death that they had gathered to begin the mourning rituals before Jesus had even arrived.
Ululating was so common in the biblical world that there were even professional mourners (see Amos 5.16) who were hired to ensure that the wailing was loud enough at a funeral.
Wailing was not the only custom that surrounded deaths and funerals. Another striking ritual was that people ripped their clothes and put on sackcloth (a coarse cloth made from black goats’ hair) and rubbed ashes over themselves. This became a very visible symbol of inner desolation and were worn to mark grief when someone had died (See Genesis 37.34; 2 Samuel 3.31); sorrow that something devastating was about to happen (Esther 4.1-4) or repentance and fasting (Jonah 3.5-7; Matthew 11.21).
Wailing and the wearing of sackcloth and ashes were a very embodied symbol of grief. The customs and rituals of grieving would have left no-one in the ancient world in any doubt that someone had been bereaved. This kind of very visible grieving is largely missing from modern culture with a few notable exceptions. Probably one of the most striking is the laying of flowers and other tributes near the place where someone died. This visible symbol of grieving taps into an innate desire to express in some kind of physical form an inner desolation. It therefore raises the question of whether there might be other rituals which could encourage physical symbols of mourning as a means of expressing the inner agony that people feel.
Another Important feature of the rituals surrounding grief in the Bible is the time given to mourning. The title of this paper – the days of weeping – refers to Genesis 50.4 in which Joseph grieved for his father, but after a set number of days returned to the rhythms of ordinary life. The practice is also alluded to in Ecclesiastes 3.1-8
which refers to the seasons of life (‘A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance’ 3.4). The custom followed in the Bible was that the initial period of mourning took seven days, though 30 days in the case of a national leader (see Deuteronomy 34.8). This practice became powerfully more elaborate in post- biblical Jewish practice. There are now three principal periods of mourning in Judaism: the first seven days after the burial, in which mourners will visit the home of the bereaved, sitting with them and only talking if the bereaved want to (this is known as sitting shiva); the thirty days after the burial, in which mourners will not get a haircut or shave and will read Torah or the Mishnah together, and if a parent has died, a year from the day of death, in which the bereaved will recite the mourner’s Kaddish or prayer in the synagogue.
A set time of mourning is something that is no longer practiced by many people in modern western society, but it is something that has both advantages and disadvantages. One of the major advantages of a set time of mourning is that it requires the whole community to acknowledge that one’s grief at the death of a loved one is all consuming and should be acknowledged. The disadvantage of a set time of mourning is that every grief is different – no set time of mourning could ever accommodate the various forms of grief that afflict people in different ways and at different times.
One of the less well-known stories of the Old Testament is the story of Rizpah (2 Samuel 21.1-22). Rizpah was a concubine of King Saul and after his death, some of Saul’s enemies came to seek revenge on Saul’s descendants, revenge which King David allowed. The victims of this cycle of vengeance included Rizpah’s two sons and the five sons of one of Saul’s daughters, Merab. They were impaled on the top of a mountain on the first day of harvest. Rizpah, who as the concubine of a disgraced leader had no power at all, had no means of recourse. So, instead, for six months (from the beginning of the harvest until the rains came) she sat with the bodies of her sons and step-grandchildren, protecting them from vultures and mountain lions.
This is all we know about Rizpah’s actions, but there is something striking about the story. Rizpah far exceeded the usual time period laid aside for grieving, and it is hard to know why she did what she did. The most obvious explanation is that in her grief and dislocation following the murder of her sons, she simply didn’t know what else to do – and so she did what she could. What is remarkable about the story is that Rizpah’s actions came to King David’s notice and he repented of his heartlessness regarding Saul’s family, ensuring a proper and honoured burial not only for Rizpah’s children and step- grandchildren, but for Saul and Jonathan too. We might think that this is small recompense for the agony caused – and it was – but was, in fact, an extraordinary volte face in the case of a King who was rarely challenged or criticised. Rizpah did only what she could – but it made a great difference.
Reflection: rituals around death and grief are changing in contemporary culture: how might a local church enable space for mourning and remembering in a local community?
The grief experienced by people at the death of a child can be some of the most devastating of all griefs. It is, perhaps, best summed up by the words from Jeremiah 31:15 which were later echoed in Matthew’s gospel (2.18): ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.’ There is something about the verse which encapsulates the deep and relentless devastation experienced by people at the death of a child.
The verse has a long and interesting back story. It began in Genesis. Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, wanted to marry Rachel but was tricked, instead, by Laban, her father, into marrying Leah, Rachel’s elder sister. Jacob then worked for another seven years in order to be able to marry Rachel. The bitter edge to this story is that while Leah found it easy to conceive and bear children, Rachel did not. Leah is said to have had five sons and a daughter before Rachel conceived at all (Genesis 30.1-21). Rachel then had a son, Joseph, who was Jacob’s favourite (30.22-24). Later, Rachel conceived for a second time but died during childbirth after giving birth to Benjamin, and was buried on the road to Bethlehem (35.16- 22). Her death, therefore, was framed in tears for her children whom she struggled to conceive and for whom, ultimately, she died in childbirth. The Jeremiah reference picked up this story and viewed the people of Judah hundreds of years later, as Rachel’s children. They would have been sent off to exile by the Babylonians past Rachel’s tomb on the road to Bethlehem, hence her weeping for her children who are no more due to national disaster.
This theme was later picked up again by Matthew after the children of Bethlehem, near Rachel’s tomb, were massacred by King Herod. The verse about Rachel, thus, gained another life in the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth resonating with the massacre of the young children of Bethlehem. It is testament to how much this verse resonates that it could be used in different contexts, each capturing a different element of the devastation of loss.
One of the strands which emerges from this story is that of the grief of those unable to conceive children. It can feel in modern society as though there is a disproportionately valued place given to parents and their children at the expense of those who do not have children. This is not something found in the Bible. Stories of the deep sorrow of those unable to conceive finds a place alongside stories of those who do have children. Of course, the narrative isn’t perfect from a modern perspective. The greatest good is still held to be found in families and there is little attention paid to singleness or to those who choose not to have children. Indeed, women who were unable to conceive were described with words like ‘barren’ which is problematic on many levels.
Nevertheless, it is important to notice that at numerous places within the Bible, the deep pain caused by childlessness is recognized. There are women, like Sarah, whose misery was so great that, even when promised a child by the visitors at the oaks of Mamre, she laughed out of disbelief (Genesis 18.12). There was also Rachel who was so desperate for a child she thought she would die (Genesis 30.1), or Hannah, who wept bitterly and could not eat, so great was her grief, and whose distressed prayers for a child were mistaken by Eli in the
temple for someone who was drunk (1 Samuel 1.13). These stories continue into the New Testament with Elizabeth, who like Sarah, was deemed too old to bear a child (Luke 1.7).
What emerges from all of these stories is not that there were any easy solutions – of course there weren’t, there never are – but that they took place in a society which recognized the grief and which recorded it. There is something important to be learnt from this. So often grief is hidden away, as though it is something to be ashamed of. The Bible reminds us that this kind of grief is all around us and needs acknowledging. Indeed, if we can find words that resonate with the emotions experienced, then they can be words that can be used again and again to express something that can feel inexpressible.
Hagar was a slave of Abraham and Sarah. When Sarah could not conceive she gave Hagar to Abraham to bear a child for her. Once Hagar had conceived, Sarah became very jealous of her and treated her so badly that she ran away. While she was in the wilderness an angel met her and sent her back, assuring her that she would bear a son who would have many off-spring (Genesis 16.1-16). After Isaac was born, Sarah could no longer bear her jealousy of Hagar and she sent her and Ishmael away into the wilderness, where Hagar thought that Ishmael would die (‘Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. Genesis 21:16).
In both of these stories the theme that comes through is that, although Hagar felt abandoned and utterly alone, she was not. On both occasions in the wilderness, God heard her and responded to her misery. In Genesis 16.13, in fact, Hagar declared that God was ‘El-roi’, which means literally the God of seeing. It is very hard to put into English but means something like – ‘the God who sees me has appeared so I can see him’. When we are bereaved and grieving it can feel as though we are profoundly and utterly alone. The story of Hagar reminds us that, no matter what we feel like, this is not true. God is ‘El-roi’ – the God of seeing – who sees us in our distress and always hears our cry.
Reflection: how do you or your local church bear witness to the ‘God of seeing’, who always hears our cry, particular for unspoken and hidden grief?
Another important strand of grief throughout the Bible is grief expressed at times of national disaster. Probably the most important of all of these disasters in the Bible is the exile. A time when the people of Judah were conquered by the Babylonian army, their city and temple destroyed and their leaders taken away into exile. At times such as this, we find evidence in the Old Testament of the community coming together to mourn together. The book of Lamentations contains extended laments about what happened to the city of Jerusalem, but there are a range of communal laments which run through the Psalms and which give words to the sense of betrayal and loss that people experienced.
Psalm 79 is a good example of this kind of Psalm. It begins with a description of what has gone wrong (in this instance the destruction of the temple and the murder of many of the city’s inhabitants 79.1- 4); it then pleads with God for help (‘How long O Lord? Will you be angry forever? 79.5) and ends with a statement of confidence that God would indeed come to save his people. There is something important in this gathering together to grieve together, to lay out what is wrong and to express confidence in the God who loves us. It may be that there is a role for the church to reflect on here about the importance of lamenting communally as well as individually.
The communal Psalms of lament are not the only lament Psalms – there are a large number of individual lament Psalms as well. Individual Psalms of lament follow a similar pattern to the communal
Psalms – only one Psalm 88 contains no message of confidence or of optimism and remains gloomy from beginning to end. All the others end with an upturn in mood. Whether communal or individual, these Psalms remind us of the importance of turning to God with our grief and anger. It is easy to imagine that rawness of emotion has no place in prayer or worship, that we should wait until we feel better so that we can offer to God our reasonable and moderate emotions.
The Psalmists clearly disagreed with this view. They turned to God, sometimes, in rage – wishing, for example, that they could smash the children of the Babylonians against rocks Psalm 137.9 – as well as in sorrow. They brought all their emotions to God. The implication of the Psalms is that God doesn’t care what you say to God so long as you keep saying it. Again, there is much to learn from this – we need to reflect on how to provide supportive spaces in which people can express what they are really feeling to God, even if it falls into the equivalent of Psalm 137.9.
One of the most extensive stories about sorrow, suffering and grief in the Old Testament is the book of Job. The book offers a wide- ranging reflection on the problem of suffering. Then, as now, people were tempted to suggest that good things would happen to good people and bad things to bad. Then they called it the rewards of righteousness; now people call it karma. The idea, though evidently wrong, is universally popular. We like to imagine that we can ward off bad things happening by living a good life. The book of Job turns this belief on its head. Job was the most righteous of all righteous people and Satan decided it would be fun to test him and see what happened.
The story isn’t really about the testing, it is about how different people responded to Job’s suffering. Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, held long conversations with him offering explanations for his suffering – most of which suggested that it was Job’s fault. In some ways the book of Job is an extensive reflection on how not to talk to people who are suffering. Job’s friends were profoundly unhelpful, not least because they tried to explain what was going on. The book has many themes but, perhaps, the most important is that if we want to be true friends to those who are suffering, we leave our explanations at the door and listen to what is really going on for the people we seek to care for.
Reflection: death impacts communities and nations as well as individuals, and shapes who we become. How has, or could, the local church respond to tragedy at a national, local and personal level?
Although a lot of what we can draw on from the Bible on the subject of grief and mourning comes from the Old Testament, it is important in the New Testament too. Various New Testament texts make it very clear that being the body of Christ and living as Christians means that we should take great care of those who are mourning. This care is both practical and emotional. Acts 6.1-4 recounts the narrative of what went wrong when Greek-speaking widows felt they were being overlooked for Hebrew-speaking widows. It is, granted, an account of an occasion when it all went wrong, but it reveals an important practice. In the ancient world, without any kind of welfare system and where it was hard for women to find work, widows could end up starving on the streets. It is clear that early Christian communities did their best to look after widows in this situation, to ensure that their practical needs were looked after.
The care wasn’t just practical, however. Romans 12.15 commands the Roman Christians to weep with those who weep. Just like the mourning practices of Judaism and the requirement ‘to sit shiva’ with those who mourn, Paul made clear that Christians were to do the same. As he says elsewhere in 2 Corinthians 12.26: ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together with it’. Part of being in the body of Christ means that we grieve together, just as we rejoice together when the occasion demands it.
Reflection: there are still financial and social challenges for those who are bereaved. How might the church offer practical help, and be part of the conversation to bring about change?
There is a rich seam of material on attitudes to grief and suffering in the Bible, from the earliest chapters of Genesis to the final ones of Revelation. Grief and mourning is, sadly, as much a part of life as is love and joy. There is much to learn from the Bible about rituals for mourning and about how we might turn to God in the midst of our sorrow, but as long as there is life in this world, there will be sorrow and bereavement. As Christians, therefore, in the midst of the suffering of this world, we hold fast to God’s promise that: ‘the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ (Revelation 21:3-4)