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When Lazarus died, Jesus wept – grief, mourning, and “getting on with life”

We don’t know how to grieve. That’s the thought that has been floating around in my head for a few days now. We know how to cry, we know how to be sad, and we know how to “get on with life.” But we don’t know how to grieve, how to mourn, how to process the pain of deep loss. And, oddly enough, as I was processing these thoughts, I found an interesting connection between an ancient religious tradition and a modern chick flick.

These thoughts started rattling around a few days ago when I read an iMonk piece on the importance of mourning and grieving in community. That piece included a quote from Lauren Winner’s book Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline explaining her concern that we lack the traditions and rituals necessary to grieve effectively:

What churches often do less well is grieve. We lack a ritual for the long and tiring process that is sorrow and loss. A friend of mine whose husband recently died put it like this: “For about two weeks the church was really the church—really awesomely, wonderfully the church. Everyone came to the house, baked casseroles, carried Kleenex. But then the two weeks ended, and so did the consolation calls.” While you the mourner are still bawling your eyes out and slamming fists into the wall, everyone else, understandably, forgets and goes back to their normal lives and you find, after all those crowds of people, that you are left alone. You are without the church, and without a church vocab-ulary for what happens to the living after the dead are dead.

The piece goes on to explain the advantages that a religious tradition like Judaism has in the way that it approaches grieving. Unlike most of our churches today, Judaism has explicit rituals and traditions for grieving, making it clear that grieving is a discipline that involves both the mourner and the community in a process that will take months, and even years, to complete. Thus, unlike our approach, which tends to emphasize the quick-fix and and an individualistic, therapeutic model of grieving, the Jewish tradition emphasizes that grieving is a long-term, communal, and deeply religious affair.

While I was still processing these ideas, my wife and I watched P.S. I Love You. I have to admit that I went into the movie expecting a fairly standard chick flick. And, you can definitely watch the movie from this perspective. It’s a story of a girl who meets the boy of her dreams, loses him, and learns, haltingly, to love again. Very touching.

My wife hated it.

That by itself is odd. My wife loves chick flicks. She’s seen While You Were Sleeping and Notting Hill more times than I can count. What was different here? Passionate love. Touchingly humorous side stories. Quirky supporting characters. Strong female lead (Hilary Swank is terrific). She should have loved this movie.

But, it wasn’t primarily a movie about love; it was really a movie about loss. Even more, it was a movie about the fact that we don’t know how to grieve.

Early in the movie, the main character loses her husband—the love of her life, her soul mate—to a brain stumor. And, of course, she immediately begins to grieve. The problem is that she really doesn’t know how. She locks herself in her apartment, cries a lot, watches old movies, and imagines that her husband is still around. She’s alone, desperately trying to process her uncontainable grief. As I watched, I mourned her inability to mourn—her loneliness, isolation, and frustration.

And the people around her have no idea how to help. Her mom just advises her to “Get back on your feet.” Her friends really want to be there for her, but the best they can come up with is to encourage her get back to work, go out for a night of fun, and, after a suitable period of sadness, hook up with some random Irish guy. Everyone in the story lacks a sense of how to grieve.

Everyone, but one.

Fortunately, one person in the story understands that grieving is more than just feeling bad for a while and moving on. Rather than showing her ways of escaping her grief, this one person helps her enter into her grief more deeply, gently coaxing her through rituals designed to help her remember, celebrate, mourn, laugh, and cry, rejoicing in the memory of the relationship even as she experiences the pain of its loss.

As I watched the movie, I came to a better appreciation for the argument that we lack rituals, traditions for mourning. We don’t have any intentional, communal activities meant to lead us through the process of grieving. Instead, we are expected to privatize our grief, be sad for a while, and either “get on with life” or seek professional, therapeutic assistance. It’s as though we’ve determined that Paul’s declaration that death has “no sting” means that we should not grieve. But, the fact that Christ has conquered death does not mean that loss has no pain. It only means that it is a pain that we can understand in the context of a greater hope. But it is still pain—deep, abiding, and often bitter, pain. When Lazarus died, Jesus wept.

I don’t know how to grieve. I don’t offer any answers for what this might look like. But, I’m coming to recognize the inadequacy of the typical evangelical approach to mourning. Mourning does not come naturally; it should not come naturally. To grieve properly, we need help. And, I’m open to suggestions for what a deeper, more intentional, more tradition-al approach to mourning might look like.