by Glinda Johnson-Medland
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
Not so long ago, I lost an unborn child that my husband and I had spent seven years waiting for. I grieved for that tiny person as I had never grieved before. I wondered if I would lose my sanity with the passing of her life. The mourning was more difficult; for if grieving is our internal work, mourning is our public face.
I had never realized how much grief is stifled in the United States. Many people did not understand my deep sorrow over an unborn life, or they sought to assure me that this loss was for the best. When I began to cry in church, I was offered allergy medicine by one person, eye drops by another, but never a tissue — never a hand of understanding.
I began to see grieving in the eyes of all those around me; grief over lost ones, lost ideals, lost youth, lost love. What frightened me was how little mourning I saw, as if all the grief were trapped behind the eyes of the knower.
I looked at this beatitude suddenly afresh, with eyes wounded and tear filled, and realized that God was giving me his blessing even in the darkest time of my life. We often fail to see the Beatitudes for what they are: Jesus giving his blessing to some of the most despised and wounded individuals in the community.
Here he was, surrounded by epileptics, demoniacs, paralytics, diseased; crying, wailing, begging to be healed and Jesus turns to them and says, “Blessed are you: beggars, mourners, hungerers, persecuted.” This was not a teaching so much as his “affirmation of” and “empowerment through” their suffering.
To grieve means “intense mental anguish; deep remorse — acute sorrow. It comes from the Latin word gravis: to oppress, or weigh heavy upon. Mourning is “to express public grief for a death by conventional signs.” Many cultures put a heavy importance on mourning — people dress in black, wail and cry, tear their clothing, or cover themselves with ashes. In modern society, we make our dead as pretty as possible — “Didn’t he look good?” — and bury them quickly. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke expressed it well: “Once, ritual lament would have been chanted; women would have been paid to beat their breasts and howl for you all night when it is silent. Where can I find such customs now? … I would like to fling my voice out like a cloth over the fragments of your death.”
The people that Christ was blessing were those whose grief was public. Without mourning, we can not be spirituality or emotionally healthy. This blessing was and is a call to allowing ourselves to be honest with others about our sense of pain and loss.
What is holy about mourning, that Christ would bless it? First of all, it creates transparency in people. It tells people we are in pain and we have experienced some type of loss. It opens us up for others to know. What we grieve over and mourn for reveals who we are. If we mourn our lack of money, it betrays our values. If we mourn child poverty, it exposes our heart.
Mourning is also a concrete act toward dealing with our grief. It helps others aid us in our working out of that grief. We all know that talking about loss and sadness does not touch our hearts and change us in the way that seeing somebody cry does. In the moment of the trembling lip and stifled sob, our hearts break, and we are changed.
The shortest verse in the Bible, is appropriately, “Jesus wept.” There is nothing else to say, his tears have spoken.
The second reason why mourning is holy, is it helps us integrate our grief. The inability to appropriately mourn losses, results in depression, psychosis and physical illness. Until we can live with the reality of the loss of a loved one, the loss of a particular relationship, the loss of a piece of who we once were, we have not integrated our grief. In a way, we are not living in reality. We have not integrated our values and beliefs.
I believe the spiritual path is one of integration. We need to be balanced people who reveal Christ for and in the life of the world. In the Orthodox tradition, there are saints known for, “the gift of tears.” These prophets are able to mourn the sins of the people, the neglecting of the poor, the dying of the innocent.
As we look to the words of our Lord, and His blessing on those who mourn, let us be confident that mourning is a true gift. Mourning is available to us that we might let our sorrow, sadness and grieving come out of us. Mourning is available to us that others might support us in our grief. Mourning is available to us that we may be washed and comforted with tears.
Glinda Johnson-Medland is a therapist living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Raised a Baptist, she was recently chrismated in the Orthodox Church, taking the church name Xenia.
reprinted from the Theophany / January 1997 In Communion (issue 7)