Our neighbor passed away last year. My husband and I first met her fifteen years ago while looking at the house we now live in. Strolling the neighborhood, we rang her doorbell, excited she was home so we could ask her about the area. She reminisced with us about her years living there, describing the other homeowners on the street and how to prevent occasional late-night car break-ins. By the time we said our goodbyes, we were sold, and she remained a supportive fixture in our lives from then on, celebrating our family’s growth, buying our children presents on holidays and birthdays, and remaining present even through her own battle with cancer.
Then her only daughter died in a tragic, freak accident. After that everything changed.
The experience created a hole in her world, leaving her with two new kinds of grief—the agony of her daughter’s unexpected death and a complicated custody situation that took her grandchildren away as well. She rarely left her house in the days that followed, so we stopped by often to talk. One occasion, in particular, has stayed with me. She said, “It’s been two years since my daughter died and I have people telling me that I should have moved on already. How do you move on from something like that?”
At her memorial service last year, I shared that conversation as a reminder by way of her vulnerable admission that grief has no timeline. While recently reading Amanda Held Opelt’s debut book, A Hole in the World: Finding Hope in Rituals of Grief and Healing, that same story washed over me again. Opelt’s reflective description of grief rituals from different cultures invites readers into the stark admission that, like my old neighbor, “moving on from” or “getting over” a profound loss is not only psychologically impossible, but unhealthy, and even ungodly.
A Poetic Tapestry
From the start, Opelt’s writing is both poetic and piercing, a gift easily recognized in her songwriting. She contextualizes the book by describing examples of her own personal losses—miscarriages, missing a grandmother’s funeral, witnessing death in international aid camps, and the sudden death of her sister, Rachel Held Evans. It’s vulnerable, yet succinct, leaving readers certain they are in for a nuanced discussion of grief.
Each chapter is a measured blend of memoir, history, and commentary—essential elements of experiencing the practice she discusses. As the threads of her stories collect, they feel woven together with great care like a memorable sermon, both fiery and tender, surrounding her readers with the cloud of witnesses that held her and her family during grief, making the intimacy she brings to a weighty topic that much sweeter.
Opelt never asks her readers to reflect on abandonment, languishing, and life’s tempests in ways she is not willing to match with equal candor about her own griefs. She knows that empathy comes from sharing your own seasons spent at the bottom of the pit: “Most holy axioms surrounding bereavement are cruelly reductive. The death of my sister cannot be condensed into a well-rehearsed adage. The loss of my babies can’t be contained in a simple cliché. The toll of war is not to be explained away by a theological system. These tragedies warrant a different category of worship, a unique rupturing of the heart before almighty God.”
With each account of personal grief, she bends low, getting down to eye level with its “long shadow.” The recounting of her deep grief made me weep. As someone familiar with big emotions myself, I wept while reading about her hardships, but I was also encouraged by her personal transformation experienced throughout. There’s a sense of liberation to be found in normalizing the depth and breadth of grief’s journey.
In a culture obsessed with self-medication, stuffing away pain, and ignoring emotions surrounding grief, Opelt urges readers to resist these options as they come at great cost both physically and mentally. Unexpressed, unprocessed grief forms an inhumane posture toward ourselves and others. Our faces become unrecognizable. We lose our capacity to surrender to the release our souls need in times of grief. Warped demands for “respectability” deny us permission to mourn, forcing us to cultivate it ourselves by investigating the freedom scripture gives us to lament and draw close to God through suffering. Emotions, especially those related to a significant loss, aren’t the enemy but rather a healthy part of experiencing the full spectrum of our God-given humanity.
Opelt’s retelling of legends, customs, and sharing oral histories are not dry anecdotes but fully alive with both brevity and depth. She introduces readers to a bevy of interesting stories behind familiar words, phrases, and expressions, such as the “death knell,” a tolling of a church bell to indicate someone in the community has died. Her many stories grounded me with a rich sense of place since I live in Appalachia myself (or at least an Appalachian-adjacent town).
The Cemetery in the Backyard
They also left me longing for many of the traditions she described to make a comeback in our Christian communities because of how they would help us embody our grief wholly rather than compartmentalize it. Because we have a cemetery in our backyard that has declined in upkeep over the years, I pictured what “decoration day” would look like for the people of our city to come together and throw away the litter and trim the sprawling plants. Perhaps I would meet the family members of those whose names I look at on my daily walks.
My mother and I share a love of making handmade cards, so I especially appreciated Opelt’s words on how to comfort well without centering the condoler and not the bereaved. It helped me see when I can keep my words brief without forcing platitudes or writing a long, personal remembrance about the person who has passed away. Her admission that she could not even look at the cards about her sister until a year had passed echoed her refrain that grief does not have a deadline. She needed to read them in her own time when her body could process them fully. When you send a sympathy card, you acknowledge the pain and help keep a loved one’s memory alive without any expectation of a thank you for having sent it.
Receiving someone’s clear-sighted words is easiest when you feel like they are learning right alongside you. Opelt demonstrates this posture by asking good questions of herself and others in her life. Her philosophical musings pull comfort and a need to wrestle deeply out of Bible passages and abstract concepts. Through her constant juxtapositions, she approaches her subjects with a jeweler’s eye, seeing faceted gems where others might see flat, opaque rocks. Her meditative discussions are clearly formed by learning from others, knowing that a full accounting of wisdom comes by receiving the voices of those with whom you do life regularly and have earned your trust.
Opelt laments the bifurcating behavior that accompanies grief in public—simultaneously wanting an acknowledgment that you are grieving and wanting to hide from the people who will pry to find out how you’re really doing. She asks readers to consider what it would look like to make peace with the feeling of being okay and not okay at the same moment. Two things can be true at the same time, and she acknowledges that we are not meant to carry the entire weight of the world in addition to our personal grief. Instead, perhaps a healthier step would be to humble ourselves before those around us and show them clearly they are seen and loved.
I’ve been anticipating this book for a while. Opelt and her husband attended college with me and my husband. A few years after graduation, they coincidentally settled in the same Appalachian town as my in-laws, and we still live near her parents in Tennessee. So we share histories, friends, and geography.
Recently, her family came to town to celebrate her dad’s retirement. They needed someone to watch their girls while they went to a nice restaurant for dinner, and we were happy to help. Their oldest daughter is the same age as our youngest and they happily paired off. Their youngest, though, soon made it clear that anything other than mom and dad would not cut it for the evening’s entertainment. So we defaulted to what worked with our girls—put her in the stroller and walk loops around the backyard cemetery, which instantly quieted her in the stillness of the evening amid the headstones.
In that small practice, centuries of grief and new life intertwined with the rhythms of everyday acts of care. For those mired in grief or those who simply want an opportunity to revisit or rethink how we can grieve honestly as a part of an integrated life, A Hole in the World will be both salve and revelation. As she writes, “Grief uniquely outfits us to experience the joys of life. My soul has grown to accommodate both my grief and my love.”
Cover image by Cole Keister.