Though lament is an ancient word, tied to religion, ritual, and tradition, most of us aren’t familiar with it in a practical sense. Yet, we are called to honor the losses, injuries, and injustices we’ve experienced in society, family, and relationships. Whether we are perpetrator or victim, to engage in lament is a powerful first step in healing and restoration.
How do we actually go about lamenting? Perhaps some images come to mind—a toddler writhing on the floor after being denied candy; a bitter coworker loudly complaining about the unfair workplace; a biblical figure in sackcloth and ashes. None of these are what we want to model, but each does have useful aspects.
Lament, as a spiritually healing practice, is a communal experience. The scenarios above are about individuals, but lament acknowledges shared harm, sometimes across generations and cultures. It is also particular and passionate—it involves an embodied response, with physical and sensory incorporation of the anguish expressed together in trusted companionship. The four stages of preparation, engagement, gathering, and going forth assist in the creation of a practice of structured lament.
Though lament may produce spontaneous reactions, it requires advance work to promote a safe, trusted, and helpful process. The first step is to clarify what the lament addresses. What is the central issue? For example, is it an organization's history of racism? Is it the loss of friends due to social strife or the loss of life in the pandemic? Is it the betrayal of persons in leadership? While this identification seems simple, it is necessary to be specific so that those who attend can fully join the process.
Boundaries are important. Where will the lament take place? If it is virtual, are both privacy and accessibility assured? If in person, does the location provide a sense of sanctuary for all who may attend?
A service of lament should not be held in a spot that triggers traumatic experiences linked to the topic. Distractions should be minimal and clear timelines set. Because lament encourages physical and sensory expression, locations should facilitate comfort, movement, visual and auditory involvement, and a space for soothing any who become overwhelmed.
Consider sensory participation. What materials might help the group, individually and together, interact with their lament? Strips of rough burlap, a modern sackcloth, may be used; small stones are often symbols of pain points; water is a common sign of cleansing after suffering; drums and singing bowls may assist marking significant movements in the time together. Some may want to incorporate dance, visual art, or other modes of expression. Traditionally, lament includes group singing. The ancient act of singing in chorus turns an individual concern into a wider empathic cry of connection.
Practices of lament can be as brief as an hour. Prepare a welcoming message encouraging all to settle in, be present, and rest from the day’s pressures. Plan for an arc that allows time to come together, name the pain, express lament, recover, and be restored. While lament starts with a proclamation of what is wrong, it ends with hope for the future. Vulnerability turns to strength as those gathered return to the world after their time apart.
Everyone is actively engaged in a time of lament—there is no audience. If possible, greet each person by name as they enter. Set the stage by joining all in a mindful practice: sighing breaths that turn to soft sighs of acceptance, meditation upon a word relevant to the lament, or a responsive prayer for unity and safety are potential beginnings. Name the particular cause for lament, being as precise as possible. We are here to lament our individual and collective losses related to the epidemic of opioid use in our community, is an example.
Traditional lament relies on scriptures and songs along with kneeling, standing, processing, and chanting. Modern lament may adapt these, but starts, after naming the lament, with a passionate plea to God or a group’s spiritual source to hear the cries of their hearts. Following this, an individual time for expression may take place.
Individual expression in some manner ties all the particular laments together. This is where the senses and some creativity can be employed. Options include enabling people to process with an object, such as a stone, and build a cairn, or drop the stone into a pool of water, watching the ripples merge with the whole. Pieces of burlap may be tied onto a tree branch or made into a quilt or an interconnected chain. Paints or markers allow drawings to be communally expressed. Slips of paper can hold written expressions of lament and be gathered into a bowl, prayer wheel, or other object. Candles and incense add to the sensory experience and may be used as signs of the beginning or end of individual reflection.
Open sentences help people voice their lament: I am left wondering ... I ache that ... I am angry that ... I struggle to believe ... I can’t accept that ... I feel guilty about ... I am deeply sorry for ... I blame .... Lament allows people to honestly voice their complaint while also providing a safe, trusting environment. These prompts may be responded to in writing, anonymously, or in verbal form, depending on the situation, but the responses are important to share with the whole.
Lament has a natural rhythm of movement and pause. Space for quiet allows the gathering up of individual concerns and a return to connectedness. After a pause, the group sings or speaks in response. This gives an opportunity to reframe the lament as a spiritual request for healing and restoration from the specific injuries voiced. It is also a transformative call to those who may be to blame for the tragedy named. The wounded and the wounders may be standing in the same space—this is a moment for moving together toward hope.
In keeping with the movement toward hope and restoration, a time for gathering up the possibilities that come from lament facilitates ongoing healing. Like the parable of separating wheat from chaff, some of what is thrown into the shared practice may need to be discarded, but other parts will contain kernels that might yield a future harvest. Participants may identify the seeds they discern for planting. Leaders might facilitate ongoing reflection on what has been gathered through some shared method of future connection.
Going Forth in Gratitude and Hope
Lament starts in complaint and even bitterness but ends in gratitude and hope. Tokens of the communal time together may serve as reminders of this movement. Cleansing water, an aromatic oil, or a sweet taste are traditional ways restoration and healing are marked. Lament does not end on a somber note; it ends in anticipation of a powerful possibility for transformation ahead. Statements of gratitude and trust are often used to close the time together.
Continue exploring the topics of loss and mourning with these rituals for expressing grief.