In the eighteenth century in Tahiti, women in mourning used a shark’s tooth to cut a small, deep scratch in their foreheads. The cut permanently scarred the woman’s face, rendering it a grief-letter sent to the world, postmarked: “I have loved and lost.” Similarly, in Victorian-era Europe, widows and mourners wore all-black mourning clothes or a simple black armband for as long as two years to signify their grieving state (Downton Abbey aficionados: remember when Daisy’s husband died in the war, and she wore that black band on her arm for several episodes? Yeah, that.) What does it say about our culture today that we have no comparable custom for signaling our grief to others? I know these customs sound strange or even morbid, but isn’t it more honest to show our scars than to pretend we don’t have any?
In stark contrast to honesty and armbands, our culture demands obedience instead to these“laws”:
1) Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. (Vulnerability =
2) Grieve in secret.
3) Apologize for tears.
4) Got scars? Hide them.
Though these stifling laws asphyxiate us with shame, secrecy, and loneliness, they still govern life with an iron fist in the upper Midwest, where I live and teach theology. To save my own life and hopefully that of others, I have turned outlaw.
My conversion to grief outlaw was a slow and painstaking process. When I was 20, my mom came down with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. She spent the next 17 years dying. She was my best friend—until she forgot who I was. For a long time, I extradited my grief underground. I didn’t want to be a Debbie Downer. I didn’t want to live in the jail of other people’s judgment (especially the colleagues, acquaintances, and church folks who thought I should “move on,” “get over it already,” accept “God’s plan,” and “not grieve as one without hope”).
But the life of lies and fake Barbie smiles wore me out. Eventually, I let grief back into its home country—my heart—and let my heart back on to my sleeve. These days, I long to bring back the black armband. I crave authenticity. I want to walk more softly around grieving people on days when they need me to, and for them—and others—to return the favor.
As a theologian, teacher, and person of faith, I want us to talk about the hard stuff. I want us to air all the dirty laundry we’re taught never to air—questions without answers, anger at God, scars that cause us shame, doubt that wrestles us to the ground, sorrow we just can’t shake. All of it.
In the Buddhist parable called Gotami and the Mustard Seed, a young mother named Gotami loses her only child—a baby boy—to a tragic illness. Bereft, Gotami goes to the Teacher and asks, “What can I do to bring my son back? I am nothing without him.” The Teacher tells Gotami she can bring her son back to life if she can obtain a single mustard seed from a house in the village where no one has ever died.
So, clutching her dead baby in her arms, Gotami goes door-to-door to every house in the village. At each and every house, the neighbors inside compassionately explain to Gotami that at one point in time, a loved one who lived in their house died. They do not possess the seed she needs to resurrect her son. At the very last house in the village, Gotami experiences her epiphany: no such house or mustard seed exists.
Each person Gotami has met is no different from herself. They too have lost someone they loved to death’s talons. But Gotami had forgotten their heartache, or perhaps never taken the time to notice it. Gotami, together with the rest of her community, then gives her son a public funeral and begins to heal.
This parable speaks to me because grief is just as invisible in our time and place as it was in Gotami’s ancient village. For me, a Christian, this Buddhist parable imparts four revolutionary insights.
First, grief is a liar. Like a wily, adulterous lover, Grief seduces you into believing that you are the only one he has ever embraced so completely—no one else has ever felt as bereft, alone, or abandoned as you. In reality, however, Grief has slept with everyone in town. Translation: though it feels hellishly so, you are not alone.
Second, we need community for authentic healing. We must create public spaces for people to share—rather than hide—their laments and scars. Lament gives the lie to alone-ness.
Third, grief is a blindfold. Despite all the ostensibly perfect lives you see on Facebook, everyone carries around a corpse of some kind. Everyone. They deserve your compassion as much as you deserve theirs.
Fourth, there are people in this world who understand your grief from the inside out. But we will never unlock their secret wisdom unless we knock on each other’s doors and share our sorrows.
For Christians, one of these grief sages is God. The cross shows us that God has a story of grief just as you do, just as each of us does. God understands what it is like to lose someone beloved to death, what it feels like to be abandoned. God in the gospels, much like Gotami in the parable, carries a dead child, and that child is Jesus, and all of us too. If God had no clue just how much it can hurt to be a human being, then God would be the only one in the room who didn’t know. Being understood changes things.
We can’t bring anyone back from the dead, but we can resurrect solidarity, hope, and authenticity. We can help one another retrieve our grief from the island of misfit feelings where it has been banished. We can take a vow of vulnerability—the honest sharing of feelings, emotions, and unhealed memories with each other. We can stop apologizing for tears. We can become outlaws.
Jacqueline Bussie is professor of religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where she directs the Forum on Faith and Life. This essay was adapted from her book, Outlaw Christian: Finding Authentic Faith by Breaking the Rules (HarperCollins/Nelson Books, 2016, outlawchristianbook.com).