Learning to Lament

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We do not talk about it much, aloud anyway, the periodic loss of center in which we might find ourselves. The inevitable interior groaning that comes from life's many mini and bigger blows. The miscarriage, the divorce, the infertility, the loneliness, the vocational uncertainty, the breakup, the challenging marriage, the loss of friendship, the death . . . we do not easily sit with the pain of these spaces because we live in a culture not terribly comfortable with emotional pain. So the necessary conversations and attempts at understanding swirl endlessly and mercilessly in our heads and hearts. How do we as women learn to name our sorrows, to acknowledge the scripturally faithful practice of lament? What good can come of it and what needed proclamation can naming our sorrows provide? How do we as women encourage, embolden, and support one another to do the often times difficult and risky task of naming aloud the things that cause us emotional, mental, and spiritual ache?

It is thought provoking to note that in the oral and textual traditions of various cultures women have often been given the role of public lamenting, particularly for others in their community. Lament song traditions date back to possibly as early as the 6th century and are commonly found in the histories of both European and non-western countries like India, Bolivia, Ghana, the Balkans, and China. Greek epic poetry like Homers' the Iliad and the Odyssey and Euripedes' The Trojan Women are replete with songs of sorrow sung by women like Andromache and Briseis, who bemoan their loss of loved ones, of security, and of their freedom. Though typically traditional public lamentations served to honor the death of men in the community and to encourage communal grieving, the open invitation to sorrow permitted women a rare occasion to verbalize their own grief aloud and to share parts of their lived experience ordinarily not given a voice in a patriarchal culture. And yet there are significant literary and culture examples of women lamenting the particularities of the lives of other women.

In the Hebrew Bible book of Judges, we read the painful story of Jephthah the Gileadite warrior, who rashly made a vow to God to sacrifice the first person who came out of his house to greet him if God would give him victory in battle. When Jephthah prevails against his enemy he returns home and his daughter runs out to welcome him. Jephthah keeps his word to God and sacrifices his daughter. But the text informs us that "there arose an Israelite custom that for four days every year the daughters of Israel would go out to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite" (Jdg. 11:40.)

Ancient Chinese cultures also have lament traditions of women publicly grieving the circumstances of their lives as men ceremoniously give them away to other men. University of Melbourne's Asian Studies scholar, Anne E. McLaren is one of the few women who have written about the Chinese bridal lament tradition of the Nanhui region in the lower Yangzi delta. The bridal lament was a recognized and cherished way in which pre-modern Chinese women enacted their interior lives and gave flesh to the emotions behind their ascribed cultural spaces. Then as now, naming our sorrows can be an act of giving public voice to seemingly unacceptable or unappreciated elements of women's personal narratives.

Where in our local communities and in our social and familial networks do women today, here in American culture, cultivate spaces for hearing one another's lamentations? How do we mourn alongside each other and still discover ways to permit hope to resonate in the background of our sorrows no matter how faintly? Perhaps there is a way that as we individually learn to give non-judgmental voice to our unique pains we can empower one another within our communities to look for the agency behind proclaiming sorrow.

I think of Elise Erickson Barrett, one of several of women I know who have endured the painful reality of living with a miscarriage and finding few places to process their conflicting emotions. Last year Elise published a book, What Was Lost: A Christian Journey Through Miscarriage.