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Marking Grief

Marking Grief

written by Danae Ashley

 

Genesis 49:29-50:14; Psalm 124; 2 Corinthians 10:12-18

“Bury me with my ancestors—in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave in the field at Machpelah, near Mamre, in the land of Canaan…” Genesis 49:29b-30

 

In late January of this year—it seems like a lifetime ago—I had the privilege of making a pilgrimage to Israel with my Bishop and a large group, mainly from my Diocese. One of the holy sites we visited was what Christians call the Tomb of the Patriarchs, but is also known as the Cave of Machpelah by Jews and the Sanctuary of Abraham by Muslims. Tradition holds that Sarah was the first to be buried there, followed by Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, and Jacob. For centuries, it has been revered as a holy place by all three Abrahamic faiths.

 

I have been in parish ministry for over a decade and know how important a funeral is to the grief process of the deceased’s loved ones. I am also a marriage and family therapist who supports people who are going through heavy grief, which our Western society and Christian traditions do not give enough guidance to navigate. Our Jewish siblings and other cultures are much better at marking time and making meaning of death. In American culture, many employers only provide a few days off for bereavement, and when the grief-stricken person returns to the job, it is expected that they should be over it, or at least keep it separate from the workplace. From a spiritual and mental health perspective, these expectations are dangerous. The grief process is not linear, nor is it the same for everyone. There is no measurement of grief with which we can or should compare one another. We live to the end of our days with all our losses. How we function with them depends on whether we are allowed to grieve and integrate the loss into our everyday lives. When we are unable to do so, we get into trouble—body, mind, and spirit.

 

As I read today’s Genesis passage and realized I had actually been to the place about which tradition says Jacob was speaking, I was struck again by how important ritual and place are for the mourning process. Jacob makes a detailed request for his burial and, after he dies, his son Joseph takes his internal grief and expresses it externally. He gives us a superb example of a healthy grief process: throwing himself on Jacob’s face, weeping over him, and kissing him. Joseph then commands the physicians to perform the Egyptian embalming process, which was typically reserved for royalty, and the Egyptians join him in weeping over Jacob for seventy days (not just a few). They travel to the burial site, hold a “very great and sorrowful lamentation” (v. 10), observe a time of mourning for seven days, and, finally, bury Jacob in the tomb—a place that they all know and can return to in the future. 

 

Joseph, his brothers, and their Egyptian companions mark the time of mourning by doing important grief actions individually and together, and it is through the collective experience that they find peace and the ability to carry on. Reflecting upon their example, I wonder how we can do this as a global society experiencing a pandemic with ambiguous loss, adaptation fatigue, and personal losses wearing us down? I invite you to join with me in considering: 

  1. What are the ways that we are marking this time of loss, individually and as faith communities?
  2. At which tomb, physical or metaphorical, do you go to mourn?
  3. On whom are you relying as you grieve your pandemic-related losses?

 

I pray that we all can find the peace that passes understanding in the midst of this time, and that we can live in the hope of faith as we step into the future.

 

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The Rev. Danae M. Ashley, MDiv, MA, LMFT is an Episcopal priest and marriage and family therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, Minnesota, and is serving part-time as the Associate Rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle and a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle. She has written for a number of publications, produced a play, and has been featured on several podcasts regarding fertility struggle and faith. Danae’s favorite past times include reading, traveling with her husband, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke. She photographed the Tomb of the Patriarchs (Jacob) for this post. 

 

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Simon Burris

Many good points here, but I wanted to make an observation concerning the photograph at the top of the piece, which features an inscription that says, "Zion of Jacob our father."

To English speakers, the word "Zion" calls to mind Jerusalem, the Holy Land in general, and perhaps the word "zionism." In the context of this inscription, the word is clearly being used in its more basic sense as "marker." (Cool connection with the piece's title!)

But what I _really_ find interesting is the "our father" (avinu, last word on the left of the inscription). To call Jacob "our father" implies two things:

(1) There is an actual "we." There is, in fact, an abiding human group (Jews? Israelis? All Abrahamic peoples?) that can be meaningfully spoken of as a union, and that union includes the writer (and reader?) of the inscription.

(2) The family relationship between Jacob and his descendants abides. To call him "father" is not the same thing as to call him "patriarch" (although both terms refer to paternity); "father" is a relation, whereas "patriarch" is a status.

For this inscription to call Jacob "our father" is to claim a relationship between "us" and him that is something quite different from, say, tourists and the visitors to a place associated with a famous person.

I think this distinction speaks to the problem we Americans have with grief.

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