The poem “Mourners” by Ted Kooser,1 about folks meeting at a funeral, ends with the following lines:
They came this afternoon to say goodbye,
but now they keep saying hello and hello,
peering into each other’s faces,
slow to let go of each other’s hands.
In this poem, we see the longing of the mourners to connect with one another, to truly see one another, and to connect deeply and longingly, with eyes and hands. There is a reluctance to let go, a desire to hold on just a little longer. The mourners recognize the brevity of life, and grieve collectively over pain and loss. The mourners know the hands they hold onto are only here with them for a short while, a vapor, and they can lose the warmth of that friendship and those hands in a single moment.
Lament is a bit like this poem, in that it is a recognition of something beautiful that was lost, such as a relationship, a beloved group, or a situation. Collective lament, as in those mourning at a funeral, recognizes and celebrates the life of a person who was and is loved, but is now gone from our grasp in the physical realm. At a funeral, we share both in the joy of that life, as well as the grief of losing that soul from our presence on earth. Lament is a bit like that.
Through lament, collective lament, we mourn together. As we read on N.T. Wright’s website, “Lament is not only for the suffering; it is for solidarity with the suffering.”2 We don’t necessarily have to be the ones who have endured the suffering to stand in solidarity and lament with those who are directly impacted by pain, suffering, or injustice. We stand alongside and cry out with others. That is lament.
In fact, lament is more than standing in sorrow; it is a form of affection and a recognition that a relationship or situation is broken. To lament assumes that there was a situation to lament, or mourn, in the first place. It could be on the individual level, the systemic level, or institutional level. If we lament, it means we recognize there was once something intact that is now broken.
We are called, in fact, to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”3 It’s interesting that lament encompasses both of these: “rejoicing” and “mourning.”
In the U.S., we do not have a defined cultural standard for mourning or a culturally expected time to grieve. In the case of the death of a loved one, we do not have rituals or culturally appropriate times to fully grieve. Other cultures have defined rituals or ways of sharing or expressing grief. In our culture which values productivity and strength, we tend to push grief to the side, and press on.
Perhaps this is one reason lament may be a foreign term to many of us. Yet, the majority of the Psalms (2/3) are considered laments.4 Thus, perhaps laments are acts more pertaining to the human condition of togetherness than we completely participate in as often as we ought.
Much of life is a paradox of two seemingly opposite conditions: to fully understand joy, we usually must understand pain. To fully comprehend belonging, we must have experienced being left out. To fully appreciate friendship, we often have lived friendless and lonely.
Perhaps the same is true with lament: it is both a mourning and grieving, as well as representative of praise, joy, and relationship. If I lament something, it means I held something dear that is worth lamenting. If someone laments with me, it means we hold that grief in common. The pain we share is held in the space between our hands; indeed, it is as if someone is holding hands with me and walking with me.
Companions in lament
Lament is holding hands with other companions while walking along life’s road littered with rocks, twists and turns, and unexpected potholes. Lament means we share in the sorrow together, and we call out to God together, recognizing where our help comes from. We don’t have to be close friends to lament together. We simply have to care and hold space and stand in solidarity with one another.
The opportunity to lament exists whenever one of God’s beloved (that is, any one of us), experiences pain, suffering, injustice, or deep sorrow. We are all walking on a journey and all need companions who can join us in our cries of lament.
Jesus stood apart from the powerful, religious leaders of his day, and lamented with the widows, the poor, the orphan; in other words, he stood with those who had no power and were at the bottom of the social and economic ladder, with those who had no voice. Jesus was the voice of those who needed a voice, those who were hurt by the powerful, those who found themselves at the bottom of the heap. Jesus rejected powerful and abusive leaders and stood up for those who had no one speaking up for them.
I’m thinking about that last line in the poem, “slow to let go of each other’s hands.” To me, that means living with that kind of longing to be in community, living with the desire to share in one another’s joys and sorrows, lamenting with those who are suffering abuse, injustice, pain, and trials, and living among those with whom we can lament. I want to walk through life with a slowness of this type—a slowness to let go of one another’s hands.