The Xeroxed letter started with an apology: “I’m so sorry to have to share the news with you in this way, but I wanted to let you know that Diane has leukemia.” Although I wasn’t offended by the copy of a hand-written letter—it was long before computers, and phone calls to England (my home at the time) were expensive—I was offended that my beautiful, healthy, and vibrant friend was sick. Besides being a friend, Diane was a role model and fellow Air Force dietitian who had been stationed at Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio with me. She was the epitome of health who practiced what she preached. I can still see her kitted out in a matching leotard, leggings, and headband (this WAS the Jane Fonda era), teaching “Dance-Aerobics” classes, the hot new fitness trend of the ’80s. I immediately followed in her footsteps and became a fitness instructor, too. We were fellow health evangelists who loved to laugh, eat, and dance together. It’s thirty-two years on, and I still can’t get over that the wretched disease killed her.

It took me days to respond to Jack’s letter about Diane. I’d like to think that if the year was 2024, I might have immediately acknowledged his news in some way. After all, there are a myriad of ways to communicate long distance now. However, the reality was that I had no idea how to process my own feelings about the news, never mind figuring out what I would say to Diane. I was indignant with the injustice of it all—she had two young children, for God’s sake—and I was afraid of what her diagnosis meant for me (or anyone else, for that matter). If my role model for health and vitality could get cancer, that meant anyone could, and that was scary. As I wrestled with what to say to Diane and came face-to-face with my own mortality, I wished I had more training in what felt like a critical life skill.

As a society, we are mostly ill-prepared to process our own pain, grief, and fear, never mind knowing how to help others. I’ve talked to many people over the years who have shared about encounters with well-meaning people—both friends and strangers—who have said or done things that cause even more hurt or pain. Some of the more egregious statements included: “I guess God needed another angel in heaven,” or “At least you have many other children who are still alive.” 😬. Well-meaning Christians sometimes cause pain by reciting Bible verses, instead of connecting to suffering individuals in a more personal way. I cringe as I recount my own inept attempts to comfort someone, or perhaps even worse when I did nothing for fear of getting it wrong. I wonder if you can relate.

By the time I got my nerve up to call Diane (a-dollar-a-minute or not), I had already planned what I would say and predetermined what the correct tone should be. While I felt it was okay to be sad, I was definitely shooting for a more hopeful theme in my conversation. I certainly didn’t want to upset her or add to her pain. As I look back, I’m embarrassed that I presumed to know what was best for her at the time. It never occurred to me to pray before making the call and to ask God to lead me in whatever way would bless my friend. Thankfully, the Lord (and my emotions) seemed to take over anyway.

photo of black rotary phone against white background

I was thankful that Jack answered the phone when I called; I needed a minute to calm my nerves. Sadly, that didn’t happen. As we spoke, I could feel myself beginning to lose control of my emotions. My sad heart appeared to be overtaking my determination to be “upbeat and hopeful.” By the time Diane got on the call and said hello, the floodgates were open: I began to sob, and then, to my horror, she did too. Oh dear 🙄. Although hysterical weeping was not part of my plan, it turns out that was exactly what my friend needed at the time.

As we both gained our composure, I apologized: “I’m so sorry for losing control, Diane. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

My friend expressed relief: “Please don’t apologize. It felt so good to be able to let go. I’ve tried to stay strong and upbeat for others, but it’s been exhausting to keep doing that. You gave me permission to cry, and I really needed to. Thank you.”

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Rom 12:15)

Although I learned an important lesson from Diane, I’m troubled that I still have a long way to go in being able to grieve or lament well. I suspect that I’m not alone. We are a society that desires quick fixes for our troubles, assuming that we even admit to experiencing pain or heartache to begin with. Many believe that we can somehow will ourselves to get over disappointment and grief without having to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). Unfortunately, unprocessed pain doesn’t disappear; it either gets stuffed down in our hearts or we try to numb it out. Although I can understand why—walking through the valley of the shadow of death doesn’t exactly sound like fun—stuffing and numbing is not an effective long-term solution. Eventually, the pain surfaces as a physical illness or mental disorder, or the numbing agent of choice slowly morphs into an addiction. I propose that we learn how to lament instead. But what exactly does lamenting mean?

Lament is a necessary expression of faith—a faith that clearly sees the brokenness of the world yet still believes in God’s power to heal it. N.T. Wright puts it like this:

It is not part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.

In Hebrew, lament means to wail, denoting a demonstrative form of grief, not merely an inward feeling of sorrow. It’s always honest and expressive. However, lament is not simply feeling and expressing our grief on our own; rather, we dare to share it with God. That is what makes lament an expression of faith. A good picture of lamenting is seen in the Book of Esther. Note the way that Mordecai expressed his pain:

When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly. (Esther 4:1)

While I’m not advocating that we wear sackcloths and ashes, I do like the idea of being able to openly demonstrate what is happening inside our hearts. There was a time when people fully expected that pain would be expressed, and often, it was done in community. (More on that next week.) Because no one escapes suffering or the day-to-day strain of being a human in this world, we would do well to get better at dealing with it.

grayscale photography of men doing group hug

As I thought about this post and read through my prayer list this morning, I was hit with the realization that almost everyone I know seems to be going through something. (I include myself on this list.) I am praying for no less than a dozen couples who are struggling in their marriages. Three couples have fertility issues. There is job loss (x3), debilitating mental illness, stage four cancer (x2), heart failure, a severe burn victim, a premature baby in the ICU, and a pregnant woman whose husband was just killed in a car accident. I bet if you thought about it long enough, your list would be equally daunting. I know Jesus reminded us that “in this world, you will have trouble” (John 16:33), but the pain in me and around me sometimes feels out of control. Perhaps learning to lament is important for all of us. However, even more than as an expression of our pain, “grieving is the necessary first step to new living. Like cleaning out the ash, lament allows the Spirit to help the heart heal and rebuild.” (Michele Cushatt, author of “A Faith that Will Not Fail.”

I don’t know about you, but I like the sound of that.

We will pick up this topic next week, but in the meantime, I invite you to take some time to name your troubles. In fact, I urge you to do it, even if you balk at the idea. Try to avoid the false belief that to be considered faithful, you have to bury your big emotions or only feel “happy.” That false belief causes us to push down our grief and anger so we can plaster on a fake spiritual smile. At least just for today, try something different.

Grab your journal or your phone and fill in the blanks:

  • I feel sad when I think about ________
  • I feel angry when I think about _______
  • If my heart could speak, this is what it would say: ________
  • If I let myself go there, I still want to cry about this: _______ (I cried when I started writing about my friend who died thirty years ago.)
  • Ask God to show you where your pain is living in your body. What do you want your body to know about that? Would you like to give your body permission to express its pain? Why or why not?

See you next week when we’ll go a bit deeper!

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