Holy Innocents: Grief

Today, as we remember Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, I want to think for a few minutes about grief and grieving. Will you sit with me?

This year has been hard enough that no litany is necessary—or, rather, no litany seems adequate. (Except maybe this one.) But the litany isn’t my point: I’m wrestling with how to live amidst the waves of shock and pain that just keep rolling in.

As I’ve thought on this, and felt with it, a grieving practice seems the only way.I realize that there’s something un-Mormon about saying this, given the way that knowing the Plan of Salvation is supposed to be enough to inflect even a funeral toward joy. Even so.

Grief brings us into contact with our deepest human vulnerabilities: the vulnerabilities that come because we risk caring for other people. “Let’s face it,” says Judith Butler: “We’re undone by each other. If we’re not, we’re missing something.” She continues:

This seems so clearly the case with grief, but it can be so only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. One may want to, or manage to for a while, but despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel.

We need grief because life can’t help being intimate. There’s no way to live in the world without touching and being touched by other people—try as we sometimes may to make it otherwise. Such contact doesn’t inevitably or inherently hurt, but it always carries the potential for hurt: we are, in short, vulnerable to each other, and that vulnerability connects us, binds us together.

Hurt may not be inevitable, exactly, but it happens. Oh, it happens, and each of us carries our own web of wounds, much of which remains invisible to others. As the hymn goes, “In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see.” This line might be read as calling us to see, to be more aware of what others around us are suffering, but—and here is further cause for grief—the reality is that private sorrows remain on some level incommunicable.

That incommunicability sounds like a tragedy, but I think it gets to why grief matters. Rowan Williams, in his Tanner lectures (part 1, part 2), offers a way in when he argues that empathy is ultimately about having the humility to say, “I have no idea what you feel.”

Grief, in other words, is the way that we allow each other the space to feel what we feel. The verb “allow” is too active, though (as is “give” in “giving space”). Rather, grief is a way of honoring space that was always the other person’s, by refusing to intrude on it with claims of too-close empathy (in the sense of “I feel your pain,” which Williams rightly argues amounts to a colonizing impulse).

Grief is the practice of being undone, of admitting that we can’t go in and fix other people’s lives (or maybe even our own). [fn1] When we hold people close because we’re scared to lose them, we end up too full of our own anxiety and fear to be the calm presence that they need. Without grieving them, in a sense, we can’t be present to them in their own grief.

In a theological register, grief is how we learn to stop quenching the Spirit. Rita Nakashima Brock writes about the way that power (such as colonizing forms of empathy) tries to close the distance between people that the Spirit needs:

Racism, sexism, intimate violence, and homophobia are abuses of power that are devastating to love. They prevent us from being fully present and alive. They diminish the presence of the spirit by wrapping oppressor and oppressed, perpetrator and victim, together in emotional chains that force the air out of the spaces between them. These claustrophobic emotional chains of abuse and oppression can be mistaken for love because their emotional power to bind is fierce. But such chains suffocate the spirit, which breathes in the connecting spaces between us, in the place of freedom, care, and reciprocity. Without the spirit, two selves are fused into one, either of which can give up its self to the other. Neither will notice the spirit is missing. Selflessness becomes the model for love when the spirit is absent. [fn2]

One implication of what Nakashima Brock says about the Spirit is that I can’t teach you how to grieve in the way you might need. I don’t know—I can’t know—what aches and fears lie beneath your deepest sorrows, and I can neither tell you the path through the maze of your own emotions nor point you to whatever respite you might find. My griefs offer me less insight than I might wish into yours. We can grieve with each other only by honoring the space of that difference, giving place for the work of the Spirit. Maybe the love that we all need asks us, paradoxically, to let each other go, so that we can be present to each other in a way that lets the divine work go forward, unimpeded by our clinging insistences. Grief opens up the possibility of freedom in our relationships: letting someone go always carries the risk of losing them forever, but there’s no joy like seeing someone return to you freely, or in being able to return freely yourself. Maybe it’s only in grieving each other that we find each other.

[fn1] Here I’m taking a different direction than Butler’s politically activist approach to vulnerability. I don’t think I’m being quietist, though, but that’d be another post.

[fn2] Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering, and the Search for What Saves Us (Boston: Beacon, 2002), 157. This potent, beautiful book needs all kinds of trigger warnings, but OTOH healing means reckoning with the wounds.


  1. This is beautiful and important, Jason.

    “I realize that there’s something un-Mormon about saying this, given the way that knowing the Plan of Salvation is supposed to be enough to inflect even a funeral toward joy.”

    I disagree with this. I mean, I think I understand what you mean–that grief tends toward inadmissible to a certain strain of twentieth century Mormonism. But to me there’s nothing more deeply and thoroughly Mormon than Enoch’s weeping God, because there’s nothing more thoroughly Mormon than the affirmation of some sort of individual consciousness so basic and irreducible as to be called co-eternal with God, and that individuality necessarily means a degree of separateness, which is the very thing that makes intimacy so fraught, and violence such a twisted sin against love. Enoch’s God weeps because we twist intimacy and “hate [our] own blood,” but we do that because he made (or begat, or adopted) us to be free, separate from others, to choose for our own selves, with our own terrible capacity to love and hate, to heal and to hurt. Calvin’s God does not weep.

    To me it is thoroughly Mormon to say that grief is woven into the strands of eternity, and that it is in fact that everlasting grief that makes everlasting joy itself possible.

  2. Olde Skool says:

    This new writing of yours has just become a part of my canon of crucial texts. Thank you.

  3. JKC: I agree with you, but I think that Mormon culture and Mormon theology are at odds on this point. Maybe we need to replace the standard Plan of Salvation talk at funerals with one on Moses 7. I could get behind that liturgical development.

  4. Not to mention D&C 42:45, wherein the Lord commands us to love so fully that we weep at the death of those that die. I’ve been at some very good funerals, but I’ve also been at a few where I wondered if the speaker had read section 42.

  5. I’m thinking also of the common cultural polemic against the grief on display at funerals held in other faith traditions, followed by some statement about how lucky we are to know the Plan of Salvation.

  6. Yes, that’s awful. It’s been a very long time (20 yrs?) since I’ve seen that. I hope we’re moving past that, but I can only speak for my own experience.

  7. I’ve heard it in the last several months, alas.

  8. Ugh.

  9. New Iconoclast says:

    Jason, this was beautiful. It has given me insight into how best to mourn with those who mourn.

    I remember the first time I saw an LDS funeral turned into a missionary fireside. I recall being shocked – it was primarily the stake president, who had been fairly close to the deceased sister. He gave what was essentially a rousing altar call, Mormon-style. I think there’s a difference between acknowledging the hope we have in Christ and our gratitude for that, and asserting that the deceased’s fondest wish would have been to see every non-member in the chapel schedule time with the missionaries before leaving the building that day.

    In that case, our sister had been a long-time music leader in the ward and stake. I have to think she touched more hearts that way (to this day, I can’t sing “Where Can I Turn for Peace?” or “Lean on my Ample Arm” without thinking of her) than the SP did with his talk.

  10. I really appreciate this, Jason. There have been times — like when my mother died — when I have held my grief to myself because I wasn’t up to a lecture — like from my aunt — about a supposed lack of faith. That wasn’t it at all. I wanted to scream that i wasn’t at all worried about the next 40 billion years, but I was afraid of the next 40 years without my mother nearby.

    I’ve been slowly assembling a collection of the letters John A. Widtsoe wrote to newly bereaved people. Now, there’s a man who understood both mourning and faith, and wasn’t afraid to acknowledge grief.

  11. Thanks for sharing your experience, Ardis. You name the very pain in question.

    That collection of Widtsoe letters sounds marvelous.

  12. Jason, I wanted to actually post a comment instead of just enjoying the post as I typically do. Thank you for the thoughtful eloquence in all your posts; I ponder on them and find myself returning to them and looking forward to new ones.
    This one in particular talks to a theme I have thought about for many years and am still trying to understand/put into action. Reading my now favorite book/novella, A River Runs through It, shortly after returning from knocking on many doors in Denmark started me thinking about the type of vulnerability and love that has difference at its heart with an undercurrent of God’s grace and will running through it all. This post adds another perspective on the theme and it is beautifully expressed. Thanks for sharing this and all your other posts.

  13. I’m delighted to hear from you! Denmark was a long time ago now, and I’m very glad for your grace-filled perspective on the experience.

  14. FlatStanley says:

    Jason, what a remarkable post. I’ve long loathed the Mormon funeral cum missionary moment. Not always, but far too often I’ve seen “faith” used as an excuse to avoid the moral responsibility to mourn with those that mourn. These misuses of the Plan of Salvation are the equivalent of cheap grace – devoid of the wrestle that allows us to descend with the Savior into the sovereign depths of sorrow. Indeed, one of the most poignant expressions of the Atonement was Christ’s willingness to mourn with Mary and Martha moments before raising Lazarus. When He could have called them to faithfully rejoice after being upbraided by the grieving sister, He instead wept with them.

    But your post teaches me the next step beyond mourning with those that mourn. Too often my silent companionship with the grieving has been more a result of not knowing what to say and not wanting to fill the space with inanities that deepen the separating gulf. But to know that honoring that space is a gift and not a weakness is a new wisdom for me.

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