The Art of Lament: Honoring What's Been Lost
Updated: Jul 5, 2020
“As global waves of grief wash over us, we are finally waking up to the understanding that tears speak louder than words—they are not dripping with shame but rather meaning. I have seen people allow their tears in new ways, and I see that through the still lingering discomfort, something new is being permitted to unfold. Your tears are never a problem, they are vital, they are connecting, they are the words we simply don’t yet have.” — Helen Cottee
As COVID-19 raced across the face of the world, millions of us have witnessed our lives change literally overnight. The virus has erased our routines, removed our rituals and traditions, ruined our plans, closed down our businesses, and isolated us from our friends and loved ones. We can’t even shake hands anymore, much less offer one anther a hug, at a time when all of us could really use one.
Because of the pandemic, people are losing their livelihood, their security, their future. Many are losing their lives, or the life of someone they love. More horrible still, the virus even prevents us from being with our loved ones as they die. We cannot hold them. We cannot touch them. We cannot even be in the same room.
On these levels and so many others, we’re all experiencing loss in this midst of this pandemic.
The temptation is to rush past all this loss, to distract ourselves from looking at it, to tell ourselves it’s only temporary so it doesn’t matter, to simply toughen up and hold your breath until it’s over. But if we don’t pause and honor these losses, we won’t give ourselves what we need not only to make sense of what’s happening now, but to move on with our lives in a whole-hearted way when it’s finally over.
Right now, in this moment, we need to remember how to lament.
What is lament? If grief if the bone-deep sorrow that fills the space left by loss, then lament is the intentional and soulful expression of that grief. It can happen in a number of ways:
Through writing a poem or a song
Through sharing your sorrow with a friend
Through creating art that embodies your grief
Whatever its form, the act of lament brings many benefits to those who practice it:
It Identifies What’s Been Lost. My coaching colleague Ann Betz recently noted that a lot of us are experiencing a sort of "undifferentiated sadness." It seems like it's not about anything in particular, which makes it hard to know what to do with it. The act of lament forces you to take the time to really answer the question for yourself: “What’s been lost?”
It Honors the Value of What’s Been Lost. We cheapen ourselves when we brush past our losses in an attempt to just “get on with our lives.” These things we’ve lost, they mattered. They matter now. They are worthy of our sorrow, and worth the time it takes to honor them. When we do, we are able to come fully alive in our grief, and to let ourselves actually feel what we are feeling. This is also a way of honoring yourself. Your experience of loss matters too.
It Helps You Face Reality As It Is Now. When we look through the lens of the 5 Stages of Grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance), the practice of lament gently shepherds us through anger, bargaining, and depression so we can move more gracefully to acceptance. Lament helps us let go of wishing the loss had never happened, so we can accept what is, where we are now, and see, perhaps for the first time, what’s available to us here in the present moment.
It Frees You to Move Forward. Lament helps you let go of what was, and accept what is. It provides a way for you to unburden your soul, so you can find your strength once more, stand up and look to the future. You cannot dream a new future so long as you cling to a lost past. Lament can act as the bridge from one to the other.
Lament gives us a way to integrate our deep experience of loss with the whole of our history and who we are now. Through the practice of lament, we can name what we’re grieving, and why it mattered. We can honor our feelings of loss, and begin to lay those burdens down so in time our hearts can once again be light enough to dream a new dream for what comes next.
Where do you begin? It’s simple, really. Choose a medium for your lament (writing, singing, dancing, creating, praying, or sharing), then set aside some time each week to meditate on the questions below, and express your answers through the medium you’ve chosen. It doesn’t matter what comes out, so long as it’s honest.
Again, let me say: The time for lament is now. Not tomorrow. Not after things get back to normal. It’s now, in the uncertain middle ground of our loss, that we need lament. We’re living in liminal space at the moment—the space between what what’s been lost, and what’s coming next that we can’t see. Now is the right time for lament.
Questions for Lament:
What’s been lost?
How do these losses feel inside you?
How has your life been diminished from loss?
What do you regret?
What else do you need to express?
Additional Resources and Links for Deeper Exploration:
Poet David Whyte shares a poem on The Well of Grief
Artist Juliana Bloodgood offers a moving lament titled "Dia Linn" Vice News reports on Why Grief Will Help Us Survive the Coronavirus Writer Scott Berinato helps us recognize our discomfort as grief To accompany you in your lament, I offer my own poem on grief, “Letting Go”
The Bible's Book of Lamentations provides us a powerful model for lament
Encountering Grief: A 10-Minute Meditation with Roshi Joan Halifax