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Mourning Before Comfort
On the Rituals, Proximity and Grace of Grief
Two hundred years ago the restored gospel was swaddled in a cradle of grief. Alvin, Thadeus and Louisa, Joseph Murdock, Don Carlos, and Thomas are the names of the children that Emma and Joseph Smith lost in infancy. Most did not live a full day. The sorrow for these children, for the death of Alvin, Joseph’s older brother, and countless coreligionists who met death before their day, was intense: their lives were heavy with death. And ultimately Joseph himself died young, killed at just 38.
Ours is a faith tradition woven out of the thick fabric of grief. The loss of a loved one, like grace, is inalienably, undeservedly, irreducibly yours, mine, and ours to bear. As Sam Brown has taught, a core theological motivation of the restored gospel is to restore the relations lost on earth into relations after death. The gospel does not fill the gaps of grief with comfort so much as its healing power is constituted in and by the gaps in our comfort and grief. Every book of scripture hallows the mourner. Jewish and Islamic traditions enumerate rituals or “days of mourning” for a full year after death. The book of Job lifts to safety those that mourn, anticipating the Beatitudinal promise, echoed in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants, that “those that mourn shall be comforted.” So too is grief central to our baptismal covenant, which unpacks that phrase into a sequence of two separate commands in Mosiah 18: that we might “mourn with those that mourn” and only then “comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” Given its birth in the cradle of grief, what does the LDS movement have to show by way of a culture of grieving? How does LDS culture treat those that remain after death?
Communities in the Wasatch mountains, where the currents of American solutionism run deep, boast highly developed rituals of comfort. For example, my extended family, gathered from around the country by an unexpected death from cancer some years ago, benefited from more than dishes left on the doorstep in the days and weeks of our mourning. The engine of charity and service that was our local Relief Society even prepared healthy meals, not overrich comfort food likely to further deepen the natural depression. I am personally very grateful for these graces in our times of trial.
Yet our same culture, rich in the rituals of comfort, often falls short in terms of robust rituals of grief, which serve a very different if complementary purpose. Our family, shocked and saddened by a death, was repeatedly met by comments taking cheer in the fact that “we will be reunited again” with the deceased and even taking community comfort in observing that Mormon funerals are often “more celebrations of life than death.” Phrases like these, true or not, are rituals of comfort—but they are phrases meant to comfort the comforter, not the bereaved.
Just as rich comfort food has a health downside for those suffering grief, so too may rituals of comfort not meet the needs filled by actual grieving. When we say “I know how you feel,” we’re unlikely to be accurate. Even if we did know, such a statement would unhelpfully shift attention away from the mourner’s experience of loss. When we say “rejoice, for your loved one is now reunited with family beyond the veil,” we mistake who is suffering: the bereaved do not grieve for the afterlives of their beloved one—the bereaved must grieve their own lives, now ruptured by fresh, real loss. Rituals of grief acknowledge, not fill, the gaps we bear here and now.
Where might we find such rituals of grief? The restored gospel offers ample resources for updating our culture of grief. The stories of Jesus weeping, the sacramental prayer, and the night at Gethsemane all teach a simple truth: the baptismal covenant “to mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” arrives as two separate and then sequential injunctions for a reason. That reason, once explored, may help us better see why our religious community is squarely positioned, if not always prepared, to bear hard emotions, and in so doing to see Christ in the sufferer, not just the comforter.
While the New Testament does not outline what a healthy mourning culture should look like in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, there is much to learn from the mute example of Jesus in John 11:32-36:
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
The shortest verse says the most by what it leaves out. Stirred by the mourning of Mary and her family, and acknowledging Mary’s perception of a gap in his powers, Jesus is filled with mourning for Lazarus and his loved ones—just moments before he raises his friend from the dead (in verse 43), a miracle he had been planning for several days already. Now if there were one person in one moment in all of world history qualified to say, “do not be sad, for you shall embrace him in happier times ahead,” it would surely be the Lord of the Living and the Dead, just steps away from bringing the deceased back to life. And yet he does no such thing. He does not comfort Mary. He groans in the spirit. He is troubled. Jesus weeps.
What should it tell us that he, the very assurer of the promise of eternal life, does not comfort his beloved in her darkest moments of grief? Modern Christians make a mistake when we blow past those in pain to reassure them of coming comfort. Christlike too is the sufferer who mourns with those that mourn.
Rituals of grief may bear one another’s burdens in at least two ways: by proxy and by proximity. The most conventional way to bear someone else’s burden would be to eliminate or reduce that need by providing external service—meals, childcare, errands, healthcare—to stand in for another to fill a real temporal need. This proxy approach represents all the vital service one can do for others.
Yet harder, and no less vital, is the bearing of others’ existential burdens by proximity. Existential burdens cannot be reduced, for they are woven into reality—and in grief, the loss of the loved one is and must be irreducibly real. Here we must acknowledge the dignity of the sufferer, the irreversible gravity of the gap in their life, and that, no matter how we long to, we cannot and must not try to directly take away someone else’s burden—only that we can dignify, stand alongside, listen to, and be co-present with them, if they wish it, as they suffer. The experience of grief is inalienable. It cannot be taken away; it can only be borne together, although unevenly, since proximity requires a certain distance between sufferer and supporter. In a culture rich in resources to serve and the will to fix, this is a hard lesson: sometimes standing by another is better comfort than standing in for another.
In our search for rituals of grieving, we can find few better places to begin than with the sacrament. We see this modeled by the Comforter, or at least we can see a form of such a proximal grief relationship between the deceased, the bereaved, and the co-grieving friend in the sacrament prayer. The Spirit is promised to always be with us as we bear the name, but not the presence, of Christ. In taking the sacrament, we participate in a ritual of grieving: we grieve Christ’s death, his body broken and blood spilt on our behalf, and as the Holy Spirit stands with us as a witness in remembrance of our lives absent Christ, his death and life moves our grief toward new life. The sacrament presents a model of proximal grief: the Comforter does not lessen our suffering. It witnesses it, it remembers it. (The phrase “in remembrance of these things” may belong as much to the Spirit as to the partaker.) The Comforter assures that we do not grieve alone. Like a friend to our grief, it enacts its condolences—Latin for to sorrow with—by abiding with us always when we will. In other words, the Comforter comforts by proximity, not proxy, in the sacrament.
Christ and his disciples at Gethsemane model the most potent antidote against what we might diagnose as our culture’s early-onset afterlife optimism, our tendency to comfort before we grieve. That night of his arrest before his Crucifixion, Christ retired to a garden with his disciples and then, left alone, suffered the losses of all those he loves. By accepting such suffering, he overcame loss. So too are we, as disciples of Christ, called to abide with him but never take away his suffering. No one outside of Lucifer’s plan would dare stand in his place and remove his suffering on our behalf. Not even God could remove that cup. In this I take a curious comfort: the notion of a perfect comforter is a trap; even our heavenly parents had to experience Christ’s suffering on their own terms at a remove. No one can reduce the saving experience of the loss of our beloved. Instead, like the disciples at Gethsemane, we are called to stay awake long enough to stand witness to that suffering.
That night at Gethsemane stands as the most meaningful gap in world history. Its absence of comfort stitches together the whole of our emotional fabric. That hole can never be filled or reduced. Its meaning—salvation—depends on our not dodging unpreventable, transformational suffering (while seeking, of course, to reduce avoidable suffering). The alternative to both a masochist embrace and a denialist dodge of suffering is the healing and vulnerable bearing of it, and the Atonement models the premise of a healthy grief culture: unavoidable suffering, once borne, gives life new meaning.
As philosopher Amanda Lagerkvist notes, “existential vulnerability in loss is also a source of fecundity. Placing the mourner—the coexister—at the center of [our relationships], calls forth a different ethos.” The fundamental relationship of the bereaved to the comforter is not one of the weakened and the strong, or those who stand in need of comfort and the comforter. It is of teacher and student, of sufferer and listener, of two transformed together. The bereaved are not problems to solve; they suffer in his image. The mourner in their being teaches a profound lesson, taught by grief and resilience expert Rebecca Soffner: to mourn loss is to begin to live again more richly.
Benjamin Peters is a Wayfare Associate Editor. He is also a media scholar, author, and editor interested in Soviet century causes and consequences of the Information Age.
Art by Nathan Florence.