The Wisdom of Lament

The Wisdom of Lament

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Despite our cultural preference for happiness and comfort, a fully integrated life acknowledges the truth of loss and injustice.

This time in our world is certainly filled with weariness and ongoing grief as we mourn the many disruptions and health challenges brought by the pandemic. Positivity and gratitude are good disciplines for body and mind, but sometimes the opposite reaction is necessary. While it may seem counterintuitive, recovering the ancient practice of lament can help to shape our response in this time so that the way forward is hopeful and healing.

Lament is a bodily practice. Congregations historically walked together as they called out to God, bemoaning their oppression or the effects of famine, disease, and bloodshed. Traditionally, the walk included wailing and moaning. Sometimes those lamenting would tear their clothes or wear scratchy sackcloth to feel the rawness of their woes. This practice made public shared grief while incorporating all of the senses in the experience.

But lament doesn’t end in negativity. Many religious traditions recognize that lament can carry us through the most difficult passages in life by channeling the therapeutic power of naming—even wailing—our losses. Naming, after all, is the first power given to humanity in creation stories. It is through voicing our collective pain that we also hear it ourselves, acknowledge the truth of it, and honor the enormity of what we experience in our bodies and our spirits.

It is time to bring our shared wound edges closer together. Communal lament, says Barbara Holmes, “allows the pain to escape and stitches us to our neighbors.” We affirm the wrongness of our circumstances, recognize injustice in the losses, and cry out for change. In so doing, we reach for healing and create a shared hope for the future. What starts with deep sorrow often ends in profound peace.

Some healthcare organizations hold reflection rounds at the end of the day. Staff can sit together and name the traumas they have experienced, releasing them to the care of the group. Grief walking is rising in popularity as small groups of people join one another to mindfully walk while being guided in their acknowledgment of loss. The beauty of the natural world can assist restoration and renewal—walking or hiking with others in nature connects us to each other and the earth in ways that remind us of the rhythms of life. A nonprofit called Wild Grief offers this both virtually and physically for all sorts of loss experiences.

Some faith communities offer services of lament. Sitting shiva is an ancient mourning practice, but its wisdom can be adapted to our current needs. Sitting together, holding each other physically and spiritually, setting aside the time as essential, and even preparing meals for each other are aspects of communal healing.

There is no single way to join together in lament. But unlike our society’s communal outrage and resentful complaint, lament moves us toward a healing wholeness. It starts in empathy for the shared pain we experience and always ends in hope. It knits us together with one another for the common good. It is time to recapture the wisdom of lament.

How may we practically engage in lament? First, we must pause and recognize the reality of our collective and individual life.

Second, we ponder who will join us on this journey. Communal lament requires trust that others who are sharing our grief will be safe companions. Gatherings should be intentionally planned regarding theme, space, time, and practice.

Third, our practice is most beneficial if it is multisensory and has spaces for quiet reflection as well as for vocal participation. Art, music, dance, bodily movement, prayer, eating, drinking, and even clothing are possible components. But simplify enough that the power of acknowledgment can be palpably shared.

Lastly, make sure there is a shared conclusion. End on a note that allows the community to leave with shared hope that their losses matter in a way that is future-building rather than destructive or despairing. The arc of lament goes from loud complaint and sorrow to companionship in loss and finally to hopeful restoration. We feel we have been heard and receive comfort that this moment doesn’t have the last word.

Wisdom of lament

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