Mourning Becomes Us

We all have occasion to mourn. Whether we do or not reveals more about us than we may possibly care for others to know.

Mourning naturally follows some type of emotional trauma, such as another school shooting or the death by any means of a loved one or much admired personality. We have recently had both with the tragedy that took place at a Florida high school and the passing of the world renowned evangelist, Billy Graham.  We also mourn concepts. We mourn the loss of a friendship, the loss of our home, the loss of our job and what we euphemistically call the loss of innocence. Regardless of the cause, there is an absence that has no adequate replacement to fill the emptiness suddenly thrust upon us. And so we mourn, or at least we have occasion to and hopefully allow this natural expression of our sorrows to take form.

Sometimes we grieve. It is important, therefore, to know that mourning and grieving are not synonymous terms. One is of the moment. The other is perpetual. The first is deeply troubling, the second inescapably haunting. Mourning can be soothed by comfort, while grief finds its consolation in despair. It leads us into thinking that it is better not to feel anything at all, which makes the mindset of a sociopath enviable. Devoid of the capacity to make the kind of emotional attachments that leave us susceptible to the sense of loss when a bond is severed, this unlikely emotional idol lacks the ability to empathize with others and thereby survives by being impervious to the pain of permanent separation.

Mourning becomes us, every culture developing its own rites and observations about how to think of the dead and treat the survivors. Respect seems to be at the heart of them all, at least in a healthy and caring society. But reading the headlines of this past week’s news stories one would think that we have arrived at the type of emotionally anesthetized state characteristic of our sociopathic hero. Our obsession with rights obscures the presence of unyielding heartache. A listing of a person’s political failings, no matter their vocation or beneficial achievements in life, has come to displace the art of eulogizing those that a fraction of us still admire. When it comes to the ideal of mourning, those who can, do; those who can’t, politicize.

The prophet Jeremiah deftly portrayed for us a compelling image of mourning with words he ascribed to Israel’s God, who said A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more.

To understand the significance of this statement, one must know that in Jeremiah’s day Ramah served as an assembly point for the deportation of Jews to new settlements in Babylonian controlled territory. It was located in the region assigned to the tribe of Benjamin, named for the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons, whose mother was the beautiful and much adored Rachel. She died giving birth to Benjamin, who she named before her passing Ben-Oni, meaning son of mourning. But Jacob renamed him Benjamin so that the young man could bear the more positive legacy of being the “son of my right hand.”

If Jeremiah is to be believed then God chose Rachel to be the national symbol of mourning for a forsaken people. Hers was a singular voice, whose depth of compassion – as revealed in her personal history – overshadowed the disaster of the Israelite’s exile from their Promised Land. For Rachel had another son, Joseph, who grew to be a deliverer for his people despite his own forced exile in Egypt. So it should not be surprising that God’s tender response to Rachel’s tears contained a stunning promise. He bid her to end her weeping for “… there is hope for your future.” Declares the Lord. “Your children will return to their own land.” Rachel’s life is truly emblematic of the emotional extremes we can experience in a lifetime; complete loss, complete hope. The challenge seems to be in accepting another aspect of ancient Hebrew logic, which tells us that there is a time and a season for every activity under heaven. … a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance….

All of our national heroes are men. They have attained such a status for either their military or political prowess and retain our admiration as long as they remain politically correct for our generation. What we lack is a national mother figure, one who can model for us the appropriate ways to acknowledge our triumphs and our tragedies; to demonstrate laughter at no one’s expense, weeping with an absence of vengeance. We need a Rachel; beautiful and therefore desirable, articulate and therefore understandable, celebrated and therefore recognizable, deceased and therefore acceptable.

We need to recognize the wisdom behind the simple phrase Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted, proving once again that loss need not be the harbinger of hopelessness. For those of us less affected by these recent tragedies we have a mission to fulfill for the benefit of those whose time it is to mourn … to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

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