Practicing Lament

May 11 / Terra McDaniel
Rediscovering Essential

We are relearning what is essential in these strange times. Going to work, school, and gathering with friends remain important but they are not as non-negotiable as they seemed two months ago. We have a chance to reclaim the indispensable practice of lament from previous generations in this season. It’s a forgotten language for many of us that is resurfacing in a fresh way through the global upheaval related to COVID-19.

Lament is showing up in my feed in the past weeks (including on this blog). This is very good news because the way through loss and fear is not gritting our teeth and getting through them. Pain, living through a pandemic or otherwise, can not be ignored out of existence. Grief simply does not work that way. One of the most important things we can do right now is to make space to lament.

Lament Matters

Lament is more than acknowledging loss. It is letting ourselves experience and express pain, so it does not turn into violence directed at us or others. Lament is not about solutions, at least in the short run. Rather, it is a way of giving voice and action to grief so that it keeps moving through us instead of getting stuck. It is a practice to return to as needed as we mourn losses from the small and relatively simple to more complex and significant ones (including the loss of normal on a global scale).

Lament brings our questions and complaints before God. This is sometimes framed as weak or misguided faith. But lament is a courageous and paradoxically hopeful act of faith, daring to believe we can face pain and survive. It is trusting the Spirit welcomes us as we are. And when we are not stuck suppressing or spiraling in grief, we are freer to act for goodness, freedom and justice.

We are in good company engaging in lament. David, Tamar, Job and the prophets lamented. The psalmists often ask God where he is; why suffering is happening; how long pain will last; and when wholeness or justice will be restored. During his earthly ministry, Jesus practiced it, including quoting an ancient song of lament from the cross. Their examples invite us to trust God can handle our grief.

Practicing Lament

One simple lament practice is tearing cloth or paper. Tearing clothing and shaving hair were common acts of lament in the ancient world. It is a way of representing what has been lost or undone either for now or permanently.

To try this practice, grab an old kitchen towel or t-shirt or a catalog or other junk mail. Tear the material into strips, as many or as few as you want. Listen to the sound it makes. Run your fingers along the frayed edges. Notice how it all reflects the brokenness you are lamenting. Allow this to turn into a prayer. Invite the Spirit’s comfort and healing for yourself and any others for whom you mourn.

Another practice is pouring salt to signify (or accompany) tears shed. It enacts a release of what cannot be controlled and what is to be mourned. This echoes Psalm 56:8 which speaks of God preserving our tears, keeping them in a bottle.

All you need is a clear glass container and salt to engage this practice. Allow what you are grieving to surface. Release more grains of salt for each aspect of what you are mourning. Watch them drift to the bottom of the jar. Notice the stillness and seeming finality. Consider that God notices and remembers every tear.

Tread Gently

I acknowledge it can be scary to open up to lament because it can seem as though it will be overwhelming. The reality is lament is hard work even as it is simultaneously a relief to face what is true. If you are new to lament, start small. Try these practices in sips, dipping your toes into them. Be gentle with yourself. And do not stay in darkness. Ask for help when you need it.

And know while lament is essential, it is only one aspect of a prayer toolbox. It is best to engage it as part of a rhythm that includes other healthy spiritual and emotional practices that ground and foster peace. Ways to tune into the encouraging, hopeful and good in the midst of the hard are also crucial. These can be taking a moment to watch birds or new leaves rustling in the wind. It might be coloring. It could be taking walks in your neighborhood or having a living room dance party or calling a friend to catch up.

All of these things can happen in small bursts of a few minutes each in the spaces between work, zoom meetings, laundry and real life. They can be engaged individually or with your partner or children or roommate. And when we are on the other side of this, incorporated into worship and community gatherings. My prayer is we come out on the other side of this with more of us knowing how to lament, having experienced its life-affirming fruit. May you find creative ways to make space for lament (and joy and play and rest) in this season.

Terra McDaniel

Terra is a spiritual director, pastor, teacher, and writer who loves making space for people of all ages to tune into their own souls. Terra is convinced that the Spirit is working both within the church and outside it and feels particularly called to host those who feel spiritually homeless. You can find her on Facebook, Instagram, and