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In a raw and inspiring reflection on grief–selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of the year–a mourning sister processes her personal story of loss by exploring the history of bereavement customs.
When Amanda Held Opelt suffered a season of loss—including three miscarriages and the unexpected death of her sister, New York Times bestselling writer Rachel Held Evans—she was confronted with sorrow she didn't know to how face. Opelt struggled to process her grief and accept the reality of the pain in the world. She also wrestled with some unexpectedly difficult questions: What does it mean to truly grieve and to grieve well? Why is it so hard to move on? Why didn’t my faith prepare me for this kind of pain? And what am I supposed to do now?
Her search for answers led her to discover that generations past embraced rituals that served as vessels for pain and aided in the process of grieving and healing. Today, many of these traditions have been lost as religious practice declines, cultures amalgamate, death is sanitized, and pain is averted.
In this raw and authentic memoir of bereavement, Opelt explores the history of human grief practices and how previous generations have journeyed through periods of suffering. She explores grief rituals and customs from various cultures, including:
- the Irish tradition of keening, or wailing in grief, which teaches her that healing can only begin when we dive headfirst into our grief
- the Victorian tradition of post-mortem photographs and how we struggle to recall a loved one as they were
- the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva, which reminds her to rest in the strength of her community even when God feels absent
- the tradition of mourning clothing, which set the bereaved apart in society for a time, allowing them space to honor their grief
As Opelt explores each bereavement practice, it gives her a framework for processing her own pain. She shares how, in spite of her doubt and anger, God met her in the midst of sorrow and grieved along with her, and shows that when we carefully and honestly attend to our losses, we are able to expand our capacity for love, faith, and healing.
Now, you women, hear the word of the LORD;
open your ears to the words of his mouth.
Teach your daughters how to wail;
teach one another a lament.
Death has climbed in through our windows.
Annie Dillard once wrote, “Mountains are giant, restful, absorbent. You can heave your spirit into a mountain and the mountain will keep it, folded, and not throw it back.”1
I love living in the mountains. I feel safe here in the Blue Ridge of southern Appalachia, tucked in and sheltered. The mountains loom large over my fears and doubts, lending their perspective and timelessness. These hills are especially old, some say the oldest in the world. There is something deeply consoling in knowing that the landscape around me was carved out over many millennia by terrestrial upheaval, glacial forces, and the erosion of incessant ice and water. Their history is one of resilience and resolve, forged by the chisel of God.
There is no tumult these hills have not known. And yet, unlike other mountain ranges, whose peaks and pinnacles stand as proud edifices, grand and uninviting, the Appalachians have a humble, habitable quality to them, like you could make your home in them and not be swallowed up. These are hills that have settled into themselves. Having matured beyond the desire to intimidate, they are obliging and hospitable in nature.
When I was a little girl growing up in Birmingham, my family and I would often make the long drive up through the foothills of northern Alabama and East Tennessee so that we could visit my great-grandmother Grace Burleson, who lived in Bakersville, North Carolina, a tiny mountain town in the shadow of Roan Mountain.
The Roan Highlands are a long ridge of grassy balds and spruce-covered knobs stretching along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. Some say this section of mountains is the prettiest in all of Appalachia. Since the 1800s, my ancestors have been trekking up the side of Roan Mountain in the springtime so they could witness the pale pink blooming of the rhododendrons. They went on foot, hiking up back country trails, tugging mules loaded down with bedding and food supplies behind them. In the 1980s, my family was fortunate enough to have a Chevy Caprice and a smooth two-lane highway that took us directly up to Roan High Knob, the highest point in the Roan Highlands, reaching over six thousand feet in elevation.
Inevitably, every time we made the journey, we were met by a wall of clouds. Old-timers in the area used to say that the Roan creates its own weather, that you can be bathed in full sunlight down in Bakersville and get drenched in a downpour up on the balds. My sister, Rachel, and I didn’t mind. We were city girls from the flatlands, entranced by the mystery and majesty of the mountains. We would pile out of the Chevy into the dense fog, eager and shivering. Rachel would immediately take off running at full speed into the wall of white while I, more reticent, would move cautiously into the obscured mountain clime, tiptoeing at first, and then bounding after her. I can see it with crystal clarity even now, as if it were only yesterday: Rachel leaping in long strides, her arms outstretched and ponytail whipping in the wind behind her. She is moving in and out of sight, appearing and disappearing behind the mist. “Look, Amanda!” she squeals. “I’m flying! I’m flying through the clouds!”
I still go up to the Roan, more often now that I live only an hour away. Shortly after Rachel’s funeral, I requested a leave of absence from work, and I spent the first day of my leave driving the winding roads over to Bakersville and up to the Roan. As my Subaru negotiated the hairpin turns, I reflected on the last two months of my life. It had all been a blur, the sudden onset of Rachel’s illness, the creeping dread as she steadily grew worse, the shock of her death, and the flurry of funeral planning and caregiving for her two young children. I’d come to the Roan because I needed to heave my soul into a mighty mountain that would not give way. I needed to be hemmed in. I thought perhaps King David, who looked to the mountains even as death seemed to overshadow him, was onto something: “I lift my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?” (Ps. 121:1).
Even in her death, Rachel and I played the roles we always had, she the pioneer and pathfinder, I the deferential follower. Intrepid and inquisitive, Rachel let her heart lead her a million miles down any road she deemed worth following. I, on the other hand, had spent my life idolizing her audacity. I would often overthink things and was driven by duty rather than ideals. I was the steady one, levelheaded and practical. If Rachel was Mary, I was Martha. She was passionate and I was prudent. Though loyal and loving, Rachel never asked anyone’s permission to break boundaries and step into the unknown. I was often irked by my own timidity. I was private, measured, and controlled.
It was not a fate she’d asked for, but I am certain Rachel confronted death head-on and with unrelenting fortitude, as she did every other endeavor in her life. Left behind, I was evading grief like a meek and skittish mouse. I’d busied myself with tasks and responsibilities, the spaces I knew best. I’d come to the Roan, to a place I sensed knew me better than I knew myself, so I could gather my courage and so I could hear myself think.
Of course, it was cloudy at the top. A driving rain had left the rhododendron blossoms wilted and weighed down with water. I parked in the familiar gravel lot and stepped into a world of white mist. For a moment, her spry, childlike figure passed before my eyes. Rachel is flying through the clouds. I feel forever bound to an earth she no longer inhabits.
On my way back down the mountain, I stopped by the family cemetery, which is situated just to the northwest of the old Burleson farm and homestead. Since the early 1800s, my ancestors, including Granny Grace and my grandparents, have made this grassy knoll in the shadow of the Roan their final resting place. As the decades passed and the family expanded, the headstones have crept closer and closer to the tree line. There are very few spaces remaining, and I am told if you want to be buried in the graveyard, you need to reserve your spot now.
The gate was rusted out and heavy to move, but I shoved it with all my strength. As I stepped over the headstones of my great-aunts and -uncles and second and third cousins over to where my grandparents are buried, I heard myself murmuring: “Rachel died. Grandma, Rachel got really sick. We buried her in Tennessee. Granddaddy, Rachel didn’t make it. I just thought you should know.”
That was as far as my language got me. Standing over the bodies of my ancestors, something inside me snapped. Suddenly, a cry erupted from my mouth that quickly broke out into a loud sob. Stumbling wildly over the crumbling headstones, and heaving the gate closed, I found my way back to my Subaru and slammed the door shut behind me. I screamed into the steering wheel. I pounded the dashboard. I shrieked over and over again. My lungs burned and my vision blurred. I wailed and wailed and wailed.
I am 50 percent German. My grandfathers on both my mother’s side and my father’s side are German; perhaps that’s where I acquired my aptitude for emotional restraint. I’ve always had a desire to stiffly muscle through the ups and downs of life, not wanting to be or appear weak. Or, God forbid, hysterical. I want to be seen as steadfast, unflappable in the face of crisis. I like being inhibited. It makes me feel like I’m in control of how people perceive me. It makes me feel safe.
It also makes me feel holy. As a child, I was never overtly taught that emotions were bad. In fact, my parents were always insistent that matters of the heart were valid (my dad had a degree in counseling and my mom was a fourth-grade teacher, so they were wise enough to never disregard the feelings of their children, no matter how fervent or unreasonable). But I was raised in a particular brand of American evangelicalism that watched with wary eyes the impassioned and spontaneous displays of worship so common in other expressions of the church. Love for Christ in my world was best exhibited through rigorous study and commitment to a highly systematized theology. Having majored in Bible and philosophy, I was drawn to churches that prioritized expository preaching over emotive worship. If a preacher could read Greek or Hebrew, I assumed he was more spiritually mature.
Feelings were not to be trusted. They were to be controlled, constrained by facts and logic and reason. A former pastor of mine once preached from the pulpit: “God gets ahold of us through the mind and the intellect. Satan gets ahold of us through the heart and the emotions.” I can see myself now, sitting in the pew, vigorously nodding my head and scribbling notes on my bulletin.
“Emotional” was a word used to describe weak or hormonal women. Or toddlers.
While my paternal roots may be German, my mother’s mother was born to a family of mountain dwellers, old Appalachian stock, hardy but decidedly sentimental, ardent, whimsical, and petulant. Welsh, Scottish, Irish, French, Spanish: my mother’s DNA test reveals a hodgepodge of cultures notorious not for their stoicism, but for their passion.
Perhaps it was this Irish, maternal thread that stitched a proficiency in my genes for the wail that eventually erupted in the shadow of Roan Mountain that day. The Irish, you see, have an ancient tradition practiced after the death of a loved one known as keening. A keen, most simply put, is a funeral wail—a type of refrain that is more scream than song, more cry than chorus. The Irish are certainly not the only people group whose grief rituals have historically included the practice of wailing. Some Chinese and Jewish funerals involve professional mourners to this day. Wailing aloud at the death and burial of a loved one has always been standard in West Africa, and so this practice was carried over on the Middle Passage, persisting in the traditions of Black communities during and after the violent era of slavery in America.2 For the Irish, keening was a mystical and powerful art form, a holy act shrouded in mystery and a ritual emerging from a conglomeration of pagan and Christian beliefs.
In the olden days of Ireland, when a person would die, a room of the house would be cleared of excess furniture and the body laid out on a table. In the room, clocks would be stopped as the family and friends of the loved one entered into a liminal space, a time outside of time, to grieve and remember the dead. The wake would begin as the community came to mourn. Traditional wakes served as a type of emotional release—drinks would be served, stories shared, and games were even played. The mourners would erupt into cheers and laughter. But the climax of the wake was when the keeners, professional funeral wailers, would begin their performance.
There was often a lead keener, in Gaelic called the bean chaointe. This role was almost always reserved for women. Many times, midwives served as the bean chaointe, women who knew well the thin divide between birth and life and death. They would usher people into the world, and they would usher them out.
The act of keening served two purposes. One was to release the grief felt deep in the hearts of the mourners into the open air. The keener gave permission for people to fall apart, to grieve with their whole bodies without feeling shame.
The other purpose was to escort the dead into the other world, to the life after life. The keen would pay tribute to the lost loved one. A keen was in many ways akin to a song, but a traditional keen was not written out or handed down for reuse because it was improvised, meant to be lovingly customized for the one who passed, and sung only once over the soul for which it was specifically composed. The keen would often begin with the bean chaointe singing or speaking in a low chanting voice, and then progress into a louder cry, with all the mourners joining in, some chanting, some moaning. The chorus of grief would sometimes take the shape of words about the loved one, but often language would collapse under the weight of the sorrow, erupting into wails and cries.3
“You left me under the star of frost,” one keen recorded in the mid-1900s says. “I’ll never see you again.”4
The bean chaointe would accompany the dead to the gravesite, often riding on top of the coffin as it was pulled by horse and cart to the final resting place. Traditionally, she would let her long hair loose to fly in the wind as she rode, personifying the natural and unruly nature of death and grief. She was a wild and evocative creature in that moment. Some even believe that the notorious screaming banshee of Irish myth is really the spirit of a deceased bean chaointe, forever warning the world of pending doom and death.
Keening as a tradition began to die out in the early 1900s and has all but vanished from the Irish countryside. As modernity and industrialization swept across the island, many saw the practice as uncivilized, a tradition that belonged to a primitive past. The church banned keening, seeing the worldview surrounding the ritual as a threat to the Christian understanding of the afterlife. Some believe that male clergy felt threatened by the power and influence of the female bean chaointe and so sought to put a stop to the ritual. As early as 1611, Protestant and Catholic churches worked through civil authorities to abolish the “howling and crying at the burial of the dead.” In 1626, Galway Corporation—a largely Catholic organization—ordered that wailing in the streets at funerals should cease, stating, “All and every corpses to be caried to his grave here in sivill and orderly fashione, according to the forme in all good places observed.”5 Nevertheless, the tradition persisted for more than four hundred years.
The bean chaointe embraced the sacredness of her duties, playing a role similar to counselors and therapists of our day. She created space for sorrow, shouldered loss, and aided in the processing of a new and painful reality. Many keening women felt they were following in the footsteps of Mary, the mother of Jesus, sometimes referred to as the Mother of Sorrows for the many griefs she bore during her lifetime.6 One thirteenth-century devotion articulates the perspective of Mary as she gazed upon her crucified son:
I was tormented by such great sorrow and sadness in death that it could not be expressed in speech… my sorrow could not be kept within me. My voice had nearly gone, but I uttered sighs of sorrow and moans of grief. I wanted to speak, but sorrow broke off the words, for a word is first conceived in the mind, then proceeds to formation by the mouth. Too great sorrow of the heart calls back the word imperfect. A sad voice sounds on the outside, declaring the wound of the mind. Love provides the words, but they sound harsh, for the tongue, the mistress of the voice, had lost the skill of speaking. I saw him dying, whom my soul loved, and my soul was completely dissolved by the anguish of sorrow.7
It seems that the labor of birth and the labor of death have always been women’s work.
I’m not sure how a person as anxious and wary as me got involved in international aid work. I suppose I came in through the back door. My first real job out of college was as a social worker in the inner city. I’d burned out doing that work and wanted to minister to others in the helping profession, coming alongside them as they built skills for resilience and longevity. I’d spent six months in India in my early twenties tutoring HIV orphans and widows, and I guess the international humanitarian bug bit me. I started my work as a staff care professional to international aid workers, thinking I knew a thing or two about suffering and trauma. I didn’t realize how woefully unqualified I was.
The full weight of my incompetence hit me in January 2017, when I served as a staff chaplain at a field hospital just outside Mosul, Iraq. The military campaign by the Iraqi government and its allies to retake Mosul from ISIS control was in full swing, and our organization had set up a combat hospital to treat the wounded coming out of the city—civilians, soldiers, and suspected ISIS combatants alike.
There is nothing like seeing civilian combat wounds, particularly in women and children, to make you question everything you thought you knew about evil and suffering and loss. Daily I watched our heroic Iraqi and expatriate staff quietly wither under the weight of the responsibility of patching together broken bodies. I had no words to inspire or offer comfort. More devastatingly, I watched the trembling wounded huddle in their beds, the walls of our mobile hospital shaking as bombs rained down on their beloved city. Most had loved ones who were unaccounted for. Death was all around us.
One day an entire family was brought into the hospital after a bomb had been planted in their family car. I won’t go into the graphic details of their wounds, but the mother was badly injured and clinging to life in our ICU. The youngest child, a baby, was dead. The toddler was not expected to survive. The father had suffered some superficial wounds and was admitted to the men’s ward of our hospital. He had become conscious after a harrowing journey out of the city, and so it was time for me, the attending physician, and one of our Iraqi staff to meet with him and share the news of the fate of his family.
The physician, after years of serving as an ER doctor, had learned to be transparent and to the point when sharing bad news. Tenderly and concisely, she provided the status of each of his family members, one by one, through a translator. And with each piece of horrifying news, we watched the man as he descended deeper and deeper into his despair. We hovered around him and, suddenly, he released a howl from his twisting mouth that was as primal and enraged as a war cry. We watched and held his hands as his entire life crumbled around him. On the far side of the ward, under the watchful eye of guards, were suspected ISIS combatants, also wounded, looking on at the excruciating reality that their evil ideology had birthed into the world.
I’ve never known a more holy moment. It was as if someone had finally broken that barrier between the facade of stoic resolve required to survive this hellish reality and the true feeling deep down in our souls. His was the cry of a nation at war. His was the grief of a million fathers who have lost their children to the clutches of senseless conflict. His was the wail of a world gone mad.
To wail is, in fact, the only appropriate response to the horror of death. As writer and journalist Andrea DenHoed points out, “Mortality is never going to be a good fit… death reduces us all to hurt animals, like Lear on the heath: ‘Howl, howl, howl, howl!’”8 The death wail is unsophisticated. It is not curated. It cares not what others think of it, and it has no desire for an interpreter. It is a language meant not for communication but rather for expelling the darkness. When it breaks free, one loses all sense of propriety and performance. The wailer slips into a world of inconsequence, succumbing to the sorrow and finally expressing with unbridled veracity what is true and real about all that is being experienced: I am destroyed.
Like the modern Irish, most of us long to be sophisticated in our bereavement. It seems we are most lauded in our grief for being strong, for not allowing ourselves to be overcome. Those of us who hold up sobbing relatives, who tend to the funeral plans, who open the doors to receive the casseroles, who finish the paperwork, who plod through the eulogies without blubbering—we are affirmed for our composure, praised for our resilience.
I’d rehearsed grief in my mind a thousand times before I actually lived it. I’d practiced the performance of self-maintained righteousness, the kind that had so often won me the approval of the subculture to which I belonged. I’d cultivated a sound theology of suffering, rooting myself deeply in a systematic explanation for the anguish in the world. I’d memorized the lines I would recite in the event of a tragedy: “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” I was certain that all my scripts and systems would bear up under the weight of whatever sorrow might come my way.
I was wholly unprepared for the reality of grief.
Most holy axioms surrounding bereavement are cruelly reductive. The death of my sister cannot be condensed into a well-rehearsed adage. The loss of my babies can’t be contained in a simple cliché. The toll of war is not to be explained away by a theological system. These tragedies warrant a different category of worship, a unique rupturing of the heart before almighty God.
What I found in the breaking open was a strange and unknown holiness, like God had found some deep place inside of me that I didn’t know existed. I was caught up in some swift unveiling, some harrowing of the soul. I felt as if God were saying to me, “I want you to succumb to the grief for a moment, to give yourself over to it. Don’t resist. Don’t fight it. Don’t hide it. Just be in it. Fully.”
The truth is you cannot think your way out of grief. You cannot perform your way through it. There is no wellness routine or therapist that can get rid of it. You cannot pray it away. You cannot numb your feelings forever or circumvent the sorrow and go straight to the redemption.
Sometimes we have to allow grief to have its way with us for a while. We need to get lost in the landscape of grief. It is a wild and rugged wilderness terrain to be sure, but it is here that we meet our truest selves. And we are met by God. The wilderness makes no space for pretense or facade. The language of platitudes and trite niceties are of no use to us in the wilderness. In the wilderness, we speak what is primitive and primary. We say what is true. We say what is hard and heartbreaking. We wail.
It is only through this death wail, in that moment of reckoning, that we can begin our journey. We must know the landscape before we can set a course. We have to say it. We have to name it. This is going to be difficult, dangerous even. The pilgrimage of grief is a toilsome one, long and arduous. Sometimes, it lasts a lifetime.
“Death has climbed in through our windows.” This is imagery the people of Judea would have been familiar with. The prophet Jeremiah may have been alluding to a well-known story from Canaanite mythology, in which Baal and his household suffer at the hands of Mot, the god of infertility, death, and the underworld. Baal, emboldened by his recent victory over a rival god, had built an enormous palace, unmatched in splendor and opulence. Baal’s architect suggested putting windows in the palace. After initially hesitating, Baal consented, but this was his undoing because it was through the windows that Mot crept in and laid waste to the citadel.9 Other ancient Babylonian texts speak of the demon Lamastu, who entered the homes of unsuspecting families to devour children and infants.10
Whether or not Jeremiah intended an overt reference to the mythologies of Israel’s surrounding cultures, the image is provocative and ominous. Death is present not only in the wilderness, on the battlefields, or on the open seas. Death comes for us in our places of safety. It creeps in when we least expect it. It ascertains our vulnerabilities, presses in at the apertures. Death stalks in the night and waits for an opening, insidious and shrewd. Just when we think we are secure and sound, it strikes. We are ambushed.
In Jeremiah 9, death is part of the broader tragedy of the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people to Babylon, a catastrophe that befalls them following their rebellion against God. It is during this era of calamity that the Lord summons the wailing women of Judea. He has a task for them, a mission fit only for those who are skilled in the rigorous art of sorrow. Verses 17 and 18 say, “Consider now! Call for the wailing women to come; send for the most skillful of them. Let them come quickly and wail over us till our eyes overflow with tears and water streams from our eyelids.” Some translations refer to the women as wise or cunning.
Old Testament scholar Juliana Claassens writes that women wailers held a unique place in society, offering an invaluable gift to the community. She notes, “Trauma often leaves people numb and confused, unable to express their emotions. The wailing women’s tears helped the people to break through the silence toward a basic, raw vocalization of their grief.”11 Grief was no longer hidden and private, but shared and communal. The mourners provided a space for processing and acknowledging pain together, and therefore served in an almost therapeutic role. The wailing women also acted as a witness to hurt and tragedy. They were caretakers of the memory of what was lost.
Perhaps most profoundly, the wailing women served in a prophetic role. In Jeremiah 9, their wailing is a warning. They are seers of what lies beneath the surface of our neglect and inequity. They feel and express the pain of the vulnerable, of those who will come to ruin. As Claassens writes, “The wailing women serve as God’s spokespersons, as the people’s conscience in protesting against the wrongs in their world.”12
Wailing is both resistance and recognition, defiance and compliance. In the wailing, you voice your dissent while simultaneously succumbing to the havoc of your new circumstances. You beg for what once was or what you’d hoped for while also naming what has occurred and what will be. In the moaning, you reside in that liminal space between denial and acceptance. Everything is laid bare before you: the familiar past and the unexpected future.
The task of wailing is so important that in Jeremiah 9, God implores all women to teach their daughters to develop a proficiency in this honorable vocation. God calls for mothers to bequeath to their daughters the vision required of a capable condoler. The practice was so valued by the culture that it was a profession for which one was compensated, a calling that required discipline and training.
Perhaps the most heart-wrenching portion in the entire book of Jeremiah is located just a few verses before the summoning of the mourners. In these evocative verses, God steps into the role of the wailing woman:
- “One of the best books I've read in ages…a profound, mystical, and even haunting book that will be a faithful companion to all of us who have seen trouble.”—Sarah Bessey, New York Times bestselling author of A Rhythm of Prayer and Jesus Feminist
- “A beautiful, necessary book that resounds with openhearted curiosity and gorgeous vulnerability…In exploring how others have grieved, she walks us winsomely toward honesty, healing, and, above all, hope.”—Jeff Chu, co-author, with Rachel Held Evans, of the New York Times bestseller Wholehearted Faith
- “With compelling personal narrative alongside theological, historical, and cultural inquiry, Amanda Held Opelt…invites us to put our aching bodies in motion, to glimpse at the surviving we can all do. Because grief, like love, like hope, is a learning. It does not return us to the before. The learning of grief does, however, enliven the after—and I suppose we’d call that resurrection.”—Jen Pollock Michel, Author of In Good Time and A Habit Called Faith
- “A Hole in the World is a wonderfully conceived and beautifully written book…It is, in part, an anthropology of grieving, a powerful memoir, and glimpses into a heartbreaking diary. In a world where rituals of grief are slowly vanishing, it reintroduces us to some of the most creative forms from Western culture. Most of the time the book is looking back on the rich history of rituals of pain, from cards to casseroles, from wearing black to sitting shivah. But it also looks forward, preparing our hearts for what will inevitably happen to us all.”—Michael Card, songwriter and author of A Sacred Sorrow
- “A Hole in the World is both generous and generative, a book that tenderly guides us into the fierce landscape of our own losses, because the author has dared to walk there first. Few of us today know how to speak of our sorrows, but in this book, Held Opelt gives us language for loss that is honest, hopeful, and gorgeously human.”—K. J. Ramsey, licensed professional counselor and author of This Too Shall Last and The Lord Is My Courage
“Blending history with memoir, social worker Opelt examines death rituals and reflects on her season of grief in this devastating debut…Poignant and erudite, this is not to be missed.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- On Sale
- Jul 19, 2022
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Worthy Books