The Book of Lamentations can hardly be described as a fun read. The concept of lament may seem old and irrelevant – a crying over spilled milk, rather than the ‘can do’ attitude needed to manage a crisis. Yet scholars have argued that this caricature misunderstands Lamentations. Rather than a self-absorbed despondency it is a book that reflects an accurate perception of tragedy. It names experience and seeks to convey the visceral reality of exceptional trauma in all its horror.
My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns;Book of Lamentations, 2: 11
Several writers have explored the meaning of Lamentations and its relevance for other situations of overwhelming loss. Certainly the writer of the book is engaged with an experience of catastrophic destruction, where a community has been ripped apart. It is common in many such experiences to search for meaning and interpretation, as well as to apportion blame. Garber has written about the relationship of this kind of literature with reference to trauma studies. He quotes O’Connor’s understanding of this type of text as an ‘ancient poetry of “truth telling”‘.
For vast as the sea is your ruin; who can heal you?Book of Lamentations, 2: 13
There will be many who will not link this kind of traumatic lament with the experiences of COVID-19. While much has changed there remains a level of functioning in Western societies which suggests huge stress rather than catastrophic collapse. Nevertheless the level of human loss, especially considering the many mitigations which have been put in place, is remarkable. In some families and sections of society the cost of COVID has been dear, with deaths, severe illness, reduced income, disruption to social structures and lost education. To name these experiences accurately will give rise to lament.
Lamentation has a number of consequences. It begins to articulate experience, putting words and sound to voice the inner turmoil when the immediate crisis is passing. In the Book of Lamentations it wrestles with both God’s presence in disaster, and simultaneous silence in the face of the people’s prayers, pleading and petitions. It may have the effect of affirming a sense of community and shared experience that lays the foundations for recovery. At the time of lament this may not be apparent but it may be a consequence of putting words to a crisis which might otherwise disband the survivors of a common trauma.
Lamentation is a form of stringent speaking. It sees through the gloss, the veneer of interpretation, and names the truth of desperate times. It is not a counsel for despair but a cri de coeur for accuracy and understanding. In this there is a prophetic edge. It challenges the superficial discussion of events that shatter communities and wreck the lives of individuals. The loss of life and suffering with over 2 million worldwide COVID-19 deaths, is surely worthy of lament.
“We’re grieving the world we have lost: normal life, our routines, seeing our friends, going to work. Everything has changed. And change is actually grief – grief is a change we don’t want”.David Kessler quoted in an interview with Joanna Moorhead, The Observer 17 January 2021
David Kessler, who has spent his career in palliative care, describes us as a ‘grief-adverse society’. The consequence of this is the failure to recognise and experience post-traumatic growth. Only by exploring the parameters of loss can we begin to see any meaning which may emerge from tragedy. As many of us have known through the pastoral support of the bereaved, as well as in our own experience, it is unhelpful to speak of hope in the midst of crisis. Yet even unspoken, hope is often present, and although straggling and diminished it has a remarkable capacity to grow.
I hope that there will be a willingness for society to lament. To trace the sharp edges of grief and in doing so, encounter unexpected gifts. Gifts that will arrive in their own time. I have already seen, as people write and paint and create in response to their suffering, the kind of lament that may yet lead to new meaning. The risk is that we will try to rush past this crisis and its consequences and silence the voices of those who recall us to the suffering that has been all too real. Hopefully, wisdom will remind us that a future of greater promise, fairness and compassion, cannot be built successfully on a buried past.
I pray that we shall both lament and learn.