Abiding in Exile - The Ritual of Grief 12/31/2020

Abiding in Exile - The Ritual of Grief 12/31/2020

December 29, 2020

By Eric Rucker

“How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a foreign land?” – Psalm 137 
 
“My tears have become my food, day and night!” – Psalm 42  

I haven't been doing well. 
 
And I don't mean that in the causal sense, like I experienced five minutes of indigestion or an hour of moodiness. I mean it's been several weeks of heaviness in my heart. I’ve found myself unable to muster a compassionate response to those whom I love. Challenges that in another season I could navigate with nimbleness and gusto now seem to push me to a breaking point where I sit, paralyzed. There is a blockage within me; the love and hope are not flowing. 
 
And I wonder if this blockage has been because I wanted the primary emotion I experienced during Advent and Christmas to be happiness. In contrast to most of life this year, I wanted to be able to forget about the darkness and just BE HAPPY. Is that too much to ask of God? But I am realizing (with the help of my therapist) this truth: 
 
Just because we are tired of grieving doesn't mean that we can give up the practice of grieving. Just because we've advised our congregants and friends ad nauseam about the need to lament doesn't mean our need to lament disappears. 
 
Sometimes there is stigma around leaders (especially clergy) being honest about their struggles, so I'll take this head-on: Lately I've felt that my soul has been in the Emergency Room, gasping for breath, and that my need for self-care was urgent. This need was not due to one particular trauma I experienced. I believe that it is simply the cumulative backlog of the losses I've experienced this year, combined with the losses of those I've pastorally accompanied, in 2020. 
 
As the urgency has become clear to me, I’ve done my best to take it seriously. I took a hard look at my calendar and cancelled several "important" meetings coming up, blocking off a full work day for Sabbath. I didn't know what I needed, but I knew that I needed to create space to listen to my body telling me what I needed. My children are doing virtual learning from home, so my generous partner agreed to cover for me, and I went to my office. I took a pillow and blanket and slept for several hours on the floor. And then I created a ritual for my grief. 
 
Ritual is pivotal to our religious tradition. The wisdom of ritual is that sometimes we need to do something with our bodies to metabolize what is happening to us. I found my inspiration in the Psalms of the exile, which cry out in sadness that "We can't sing our songs in this foreign land!" (Ps. 137) How appropriate for this Christmas, when we cannot gather to sing of the birth of Christ. 
 
I realized that I hadn’t slowed down to take a full inventory of this year. So I wrote a list of all the losses and disappointments. The list was staggering: 27 items in just a few minutes of journaling. To ritualize the losses, I took stones and dropped them in a basin one-by-one, slowly naming a loss for each stone. 
 
There’s not a magical ending to this story. I didn’t immediately become joyful. But the ritual did dislodge something inside me – it opened the blockage. It gave me perspective. Looking at that pile of stones, I saw how much we had been through, and I felt a great compassion for myself and all my communities. No wonder we are struggling.
 
I recognize that our situations are each unique. I know it’s easy to advise self-care, and hard to actually care for oneself. And I also know that each of us need a different type of ritual to open space for healthy grieving. (And maybe also therapy, medication, or other supports).
 
But despite these differences, I do hear our ancestors calling us all through the Psalms – reminding us of the urgency of self-compassion, and the invitation to lift our grief to God. 
 
How is your body inviting you to attend to your grief? 
 
When I finished my grieving ritual, I felt my heart opening and out of it arose a song. A song of lament and beauty, of gratitude and faith. So I offer my own exilic Psalm to you, in hopes that it might help you dislodge your grief too. Click HERE to listen.
 
Be well, friends.