“On that day the mourning in Jerusalem shall be as great
as the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the plain of Megiddo.” — Zechariah 12:11
While I was visiting my childhood church in Texas recently, I ran into an old friend. It’s been the year of family crises beginning with my dad’s cancer diagnosis last July, then my sister’s stroke, and finally, my grandmother’s death. My friend and I have known each other since we were young and though she was several years older, I always considered her a kindred spirit; We were both the middle child of three girls. Her father was diagnosed with cancer within weeks of my father’s diagnosis.
While my father’s cancer responded to several different kinds of treatment, my friend’s father swiftly and painfully declined. He died in January.
When I hugged my friend and tears came to her eyes, I started to do that thing that well-meaning Christians often do in these situations: apologize for making her cry and attempt to change the subject. But my kind friend is without pretense. We were both struggling through measures of grief; there was no reason to hide it.
“It comes and goes,” she said speaking of grief. “But there are days when I wonder, ‘When can I mourn? When can I tear my clothes and roll around in the dirt?’” We talked about our cultural aversion to mourning and the word that kept running through my mind was “keening.”
With the grief my friend and her family have been experiencing, and with the news of mass shootings, war, abuse, and violence, I’ve wondered how many of us have ever keened. Who of us has wailed in public, rocking with grief, having no thought of embarrassment or to hush ourselves, just a deep cry to the sky, to creation, to our community, to God?
I imagine the people in Zechariah 12, who are being encouraged to grieve their sins. They are told that their grief would be “as great as the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the plain of Megiddo.” Megiddo is where their people had mourned the death of their beloved king Josiah; There was so much grief that Jeremiah wrote a lament for the ages for the boy who became King of Judah at 8 years old, who “did what was right in the Lord’s eyes.:
The prophet Jeremiah composed funeral songs for Josiah, and to this day choirs still sing these sad songs about his death. These songs of sorrow have become a tradition and are recorded in [The Book of Laments/Lamentations.] ( 2 Chronicles 35:25)
For the ancients, grief meant beating chests, crying out in unison, singing songs of mourning, tearing clothes. But it’s not considered good etiquette for modern mourners to show the same aggressive displays of grief. Renita J. Weems, in her cultural commentary of Jeremiah, says it more sinisterly, that in our culture, “grief is treason.”
I’m no good at mourning. I don’t really want to keen publically. It seems like a lot of energy to emit such deep feeling, to bear with the stares and judgment, and to swim against the tide of a culture that finds weakness in wails.
But maybe my ability to put off mourning is a condition of my privilege.
In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a fictionalized account of Sherman Alexie’s youth on a reservation, main character Arnold describes his own acquaintance with grief:
I’m fourteen years old and I’ve been to forty-two funerals.
That’s really the biggest difference between Indians and white people…
All my white friends can count their deaths on one hand.
I can count my fingers, toes, arms, legs, eyes, ears, nose, penis, butt cheeks, and nipples, and still not get close to my deaths.
There are people who are acquainted with sorrow. I see them in photos, the grief on their faces so visceral that I can almost feel their tears on my own face as they throw themselves over their loved one’s bodies, loved ones who have been killed by violence or war, who have been mutilated or murdered by bigotry and hatred. Who have had to live as traitors in a land of power. I gaze out at them from the distance of privilege, able to avoid their excessive lament because it makes me uncomfortable.
They hold onto each other and their cries are so loud, I almost hear them.
Then I realize that God is a traitor with them, blessing them in their mourning, weeping at the suffering that creatures have wrought.
When I saw my friend at church, I didn’t cry at first. But as we were about to part, she touched my arm.
“This is the wrong thing to say,” she said.
I assured her that she could say anything.
“I’m glad,” she said. “I’m glad that you and your family are still fighting.”
That’s when we both lost it. And for a moment, I could imagine us wailing together, falling on the floor, lamenting her father’s death and my father’s cancer, grieving with each other the pain of the world. But the best we could do was hold each other for a short moment and cry in whispers.
We were in church, after all. It wouldn’t do to make anyone uncomfortable.
Christiana N. Peterson lives with her family on a farm in the Midwest. She has published pieces on death, fairytales, and farm life at Art House America, her.meneutics, and cordella and she’s a regular contributor to Good Letters, the Image blog. You can find more of Christiana’s writing at christiananpeterson.com and follow her on twitter.