Making space for lament when national tragedy strikes

A few weeks ago I drove up the mountains to pick up my oldest daughter from 6th grade camp. The highway began to bend and wind into the woods. The sight of the forest took my breath away. I was stunned by the devastation and destruction left by the forest fires in that area.

A grove of trees that just a year ago boasted a vibrant, red-green-gold was now marked by black trunks and brittle branches. The grove was sparse with fallen trees in the road and piles of ashes all around.

I couldn’t help but pull over and just stare in sacred silence. Like many places up and down our beautiful state of California, this area burned. This forest and the people who live near it have endured much suffering and loss.

Calvin Crest Camp, where I was headed, was spared but the fires snuck right up to their back door, and the evidence of the burning is all around. Fires still blaze farther north in Santa Rosa this week. Scrolling through Facebook, I am grieved by the pictures of friends’ childhood homes, hospitals and schools burned to the ground in that area.

Meanwhile, in other parts of our country and world, devastating hurricanes have put whole cities under water. Death and destruction permeate the landscape. Just a few days before I drove up to Calvin Crest, a mass shooting in Las Vegas left 50 dead and countless injured. I have been heavy with the thought of so many people trying to dig themselves out of the devastation.

So much loss. So much to grieve.

These last three years since my husband died from cancer, I’ve learned that if I don’t make space for the grief it will sneak up on me like a forest fire. Before I know it, my heart will be ablaze with grief, unstoppable and racing toward despair.

Because of the deep grief I’ve endured, new grief – like the death of another loved one, a natural disaster or national tragedy – piles up in my heart. It feels like grief stacked upon grief, and it’s heavy to carry. I need to be gentle with myself.

This week I am reminded of the importance of lament. We have moved away from the Biblical practice of lament in the North American church, but I believe now more than ever we need it. Lament is an invitation to cry out to God in suffering and pain. It’s a way to express deep sadness while also acknowledging God at work in the suffering.

In his book, Prophetic Lament, Soong-Chan Rah writes, “The American church avoids lament. The power of lament is minimized, and the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost. But absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget.”

I am challenged by these words to carve out space for lament. I do not want to forget the injustices I see around me. I do not want to forget those who are suffering. I do not want to share an article on social media about the shooting in Las Vegas and then move on to a heated debate about gun control. We dishonor those families when we rob them of the time to grieve. We do a disservice to ourselves when we attempt to march on to political discussions unscathed by the human tragedy.

The Bible offers up a model for lament in the Psalms and the poetry of the book of Lamentations. Psalm 40 is one of my favorite examples of lament. David writes opens the Psalm with words of thanksgiving: “I waited patiently for the LORD, and He turned to me and heard my cry for help. He brought me up from a desolate pit, out of the muddy clay, and set my feet on a rock, making my steps secure” (Psalm 40:1-2).

Later in the Psalm, David cries out to God in his own weakness and helplessness: “Lord, be pleased to deliver me; hurry to help me, Lord” (Psalm 40:13). Many of the Psalms express pain, grief, worry, fear and then the Psalmist is led into hope in God. I am grateful that the Bible includes examples of people expressing sadness and grief in times of tragedy and trauma. This gives us permission to lament as well.

Let me encourage you during these difficult times to hold space for grief. We all grieve in unique ways. For me, this means clearing my schedule for a trail run or getting out my journal to write some lines about how these losses are hitting me. For you, it might mean sitting in the quiet of your backyard to watch the birds or strolling through the neighborhood. It might mean letting yourself cry in your bedroom.

When many are grieving, I believe it’s also important to reach out to people and acknowledge the pain. It’s tempting to sweep the tragedy under the rug. Some of us feel sad and helpless, so we stuff it down and quickly move on. We need to fight this urge and intentionally check in with our people.

I’m concerned that in this age of social media we choose to do more of our processing on the internet when it’s our face-to-face relationships that need tending to. We need to listen to others, talk through what we are feeling, and carve out space for prayer. I like to do this by making a pot of soup or a cup of tea and inviting people to my table so we can hear the nuances in each other’s voices. And we can cry together.

My challenge to you is to think about ways you can hold space for lament in your own life. Give yourself permission to put it on the calendar or cancel some other activities. Invite a close friend into conversation or prayer about the state of our world. This is the way we can come together in community and push back the darkness.

**I have developed a FREE RESOURCE for readers navigating guilt and shame in grief. This little exercise has helped me so much on my own grief journey. Check it out here.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash.

About Dorina Gilmore

5 Comments

  • […] Just about everything I’ve ever read by Dorina has caused my head to bob up and down in agreement.  This week, Dorina wrote about grief, and how it will sneak up on you if you don’t deal with it, and how even grief in the form of natural disasters and national tragedies remind us of the importance of lament.  Amen sister.  You can find Dorina’s essay, Making Space For Lament When National Tragedy Strikes,  here. […]

  • Jody Collins says:

    “The American church avoids lament. The power of lament is minimized, and the underlying narrative of suffering that requires lament is lost. But absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder. Absence makes the heart forget.”
    Wow, those are powerful lines. And your post is so necessary, Dorina.
    I was saying to a friend the other day how much I miss when I don’t put pen to paper to process my world–there’s a lot locked inside just waiting to get out, but until I take time to sit and listen to my own heart, I’ll never know what’s there.
    So good.
    (And Calvin Crest….oh my. That fire was way to close for comfort in many, many ways. Lots of personal memories at that camp.)

  • Dorina, Everything about this is right and good. Thank you for saying it. Yes . . .making room for lament. I have found when I busy myself and don’t attend to sadness creeping up to the surface, it’s not use. Grief will get me one way or the other. It’s better to make the space.

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