Everything about my fifth grade math teacher screamed terror. She kept the shades drawn. The desks faced away from the windows. Her hair was as black as the chalkboard, and she never, ever wore color. For eleven-year-old me, Mrs. Harry was fear incarnate. So on my first day of public school, when I couldn’t find my math homework, I actually broke out in a cold sweat.
I thought I’d filed it in my notebook, but when I opened to where it was supposed to be, I found the glow of a blank sheet of paper. Then Mrs. Harry swooped past my desk to check homework, and she, too, saw the conspicuous gleam. She demanded to know why I hadn’t done my homework, then sent me into the hall to redo the lesson.
So I left, holding back tears, while a room full of strangers gawked. Out in the hall, I heard the class continue without me. Suddenly the door opened and a girl slid to the floor next to me. She hadn’t done her homework either.
“I don’t know why she made you sit out here. It’s kinda mean. It’s your first day.”
It made me feel better to know I wasn’t alone out there. That someone else had come under the wrath of the dungeon mistress too.
All of us grow up, and our moments of terror grow up with us. Sometimes too fast. I relived that moment in the school hallway six years later.
When I was seventeen, my dad nearly died in the Atlantic ocean. He’d been surprised by a wave, smashed into the beach, and essentially drowned. By the grace of God, he survived the encounter. But our family’s life had come to a screeching halt.
A week later I was sitting lifeless in Sunday night youth group. I had spent my vacation in the waiting room of Baltimore’s shock-trauma unit wondering if I’d still have a dad. But no one in the entire blacklight-pulsing youth room seemed to notice. Like my fifth-grade math class, it went on without me. If anything, I was an uncomfortable spectacle.
After all, what teenager wants to talk about near-death? What adult does?
In the U-S-of-A, few of us know what to do with pain and grief. They’re insidious disrupters of our comfort—strangers really. When the mother of the neighborhood kids who ride their bikes in front of our house leaves for the hospital one day and never returns, we simply don’t know what to do.
We don’t like to talk about it. Christians nod toward the grief-stricken and then, with the rest of the world, move on. Maybe it’s the tenor of American idealism. Maybe it’s the comfort afforded to us by technology or medicine or the internet. We could blame many things, but the fact of the matter is we don’t like to stop with the kid who doesn’t have his math homework if we don’t have to.
We know the stages of grief and we know people who’ve grieved—we’ve probably grieved ourselves. Grief is the great isolator—the great silencer. We have a tendency to treat others’ grief like parentheses in our relationships. It’s there—we have to acknowledge it—but it’s something we prefer to slide around. We’re afraid of asking, “How are you?” because someone might answer honestly.
We’ll bake a casserole or say a prayer in Sunday school, and then move on.
And yet our Bible calls us to mourn with those who mourn. The scriptures even have a word for it: lament.
Throughout the Bible’s narrative, lament periodically puts its hands up, blackened with pain, and stops the action. Laments in the Pentateuch, in Job, in the Psalms, in a book that calls itself “laments” all halt the momentum of the story. It’s a full stop—the punctuation of a period, not the inconvenience of parentheses.
Lament is the sound of a hissing radiator, the cheese-grater inhales of a father whose daughter lies twisted in his arms. The question “Why?” and “How could you?” vortex back on themselves.
Lament slides down the wall to sit next to the kid who’s crying and afraid and embarrassed and alone in the hallway.
In that stopped moment, lament rarely does theology we’d call “good.” There’s a lot of complaining. There’s a lot of fist-shaking-under-the-nose-of-God—often with more demands than answers.
Rarely do the laments in the Bible resolve in a positive light. They just end. No “God’s got a plan for all this.” Just a period and space. Moments where life comes to a full stop for the hurt and the grieving. But where grief isolates, lament creates companionship.
One of the strange realities we face in the Psalms over and over is the unabashed public-ness of laments. Some of David’s rawest moments were written “to the choir director” of the temple.
David wanted his grief-filled voice to be one among many in the public worship of Israel. It’s hard to turn someone’s full-stop-grief into parentheses when you fill your own throat with their sobs.
The Bible has an expectation of God’s people: that we would sit in the pain of the one whose cry is pounding on the doors of heaven.
And that is hard.
The Sunday morning that I sat in the Baltimore shock-trauma waiting to hear whether or not my dad would walk again, all I wanted was someone to stop with me. I called a few friends—people at church had heard what had happened—but no one talked for more than a minute or two. No one said more than, “I’ll be praying.”
I don’t hold it against them. After all, who really wants to welcome pain? I know, because I’ve been on the other side too—watching people suffer right next to me. I know they need companionship, but I don’t have the emotional energy, the time, or the desire to join their hurt.
That’s the impossible demand of self-sacrifice. Can we—will we—sit on the floor with those lacerated with grief and take the knife of pain to our own skin?
Will we lament?
Cover image by Brandon Giella.