For Hurricane Survivors: An Invitation to Lament

For Hurricane Survivors: An Invitation to Lament September 21, 2017


Since Harvey made landfall, I’ve been amazed by the courage of fellow Texans responding to the devastation. I’ve seen kindness and resourcefulness in the midst of a thousand details clamoring for attention—essential things like meals, potable water, toothbrushes, and clean clothes. I’ve noticed strength and patience as people have waited for power to be restored, met with insurance adjustors, and begun clean up.

All the chaos of the aftermath of Harvey, not to mention the fires along the West coast, Mexico’s earthquake, and Irma, has brought to mind those first days of wandering around my home after our fire seven years ago. It looked like our place had been bombed. I’ll always miss the room full of books my husband and I had collected over our twenty-odd years together. And the image of my daughter standing in what had been her room is imprinted on my memory. Since the roof was gone, puffy white clouds were visible, floating past like nothing had happened. Everything was covered in a thick layer of ashes except the paint on her walls, which almost exactly matched the color of the sky. The bottom half of a birthday note was still taped to her door. None of this compares with the lives of my family and I remain unspeakably grateful we were spared losing anyone that day. But it doesn’t change the fact that our shock and grief were real and significant.

My hope for those affected by these storms is that they take time to lament what has happened. I hope they won’t try to rush past or minimize the pain. As they continue the hard work of starting again, I hope they’ll realize that some damage can’t be photographed or easily cataloged. Lives have been lost. Some dear friends and neighbors will move away to seek a fresh start or to access education. And some things destroyed by wind and floodwaters are precious and irreplaceable.

Lament is something we don’t hear much about in our time but it plays a significant role in the Biblical narrative. When disaster happened, people put ashes on their heads, cried aloud, tore their clothes. Mordecai put on sackcloth and ashes when he found out his people had been singled out for genocide (Esther 4:1-3). Reuben tore his clothes when he learned his brother Joseph had been sold into slavery (Genesis 37:29). David ripped his when he discovered Saul and Jonathan had been killed in battle (2 Samuel 1:11). They didn’t do these things because they were masochistic or overly dramatic. They understood the importance of expressing pain, grief, and loss in physical, visceral ways. They knew putting a brave or happy face on hard realities ultimately makes them harder to bear.

So if you lost something or everything through Harvey (or any other storm), my prayer is that you’ll give yourself permission feel how you feel. To lament. To mourn the big things and the small ones. Because after the emergency crews are gone, your work (and that of those you love) will only be beginning in some ways. I hope you’ll pray, cry, yell, and pray some more. I hope you’ll tear some cloth or punch a pillow. I hope you’ll draw or write what you feel or what you miss. And in the process, I pray you’ll know that God considers your tears precious enough to save like treasures (Psalm 56:8).

And remember to pace yourself. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t forget to breathe, rest, and move in the midst of tearing out sheet rock and waiting on hold to apply for disaster relief and separating what can be saved from what has to be trashed. Take a walk. Take a nap. Eat some ice cream. Watch a movie that makes you laugh. Spend time with a friend. It will take some time to reach a new normal. And that is ok.

And one other thing. Don’t be afraid ask for help. Let your family, friends, and community know what you need. One of the brightest spots of the aftermath of our fire was the outpouring of kindness and generosity for us. Especially at first, our needs were obvious. But others we had to articulate. It was humbling and wonderful to see the ways many wanted to help.

Asking for help can also mean seeking the support of a counselor or spiritual director who can help you process your experiences. I had both at different times during my family’s process of recovery and rebuilding. They helped me articulate what I was feeling. They helped me tune into hard questions I was afraid to ask. They stayed with me in the dark while I waited for answers. If funds are tight or non-existent, know there are centers that offer low cost options and sliding scales, some of which are even available over a phone or video call. Help could also come through listening to voices from the past. Spiritual writers like Julian of Norwich and Saint John of the Cross talk about suffering and the dark night of the soul from experience and with deep wisdom. (For an insightful modern take on suffering and darkness, check out Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark.)

Whatever you do, know you don’t have to go through this alone. There are some parts of living on this side of pain and loss that only you can choose to lean into and confront (or not). In the midst of this journey, I pray there are people already in your life who want to walk with you. But even if not, if your story is anything like mine (and I hope it is in this), there are those you haven’t met yet who can be life-saving agents of hope and strength. And no matter what, One named Emmanuel waits with you full of mercy and great love. Even in the dark (Psalm 139:12).

Terra McDaniel is a spiritual director and the pastor of New Table, a small contemplative and liturgical community, in Austin, Texas. She received an MDiv with a concentration in spiritual formation from Portland Seminary (formerly George Fox Evangelical Seminary). Terra and her husband Kyle, a managing director at Whitebox Advisors and board member of Allies Against Slavery, live in East Austin with their tiny rescue dog Edie. And she’s thankful that their daughter, son-in-law, and grand-dog are only a ten minute drive away.

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