A Review of
A Hole in the World: Finding Hope in Rituals of Grief and Healing
Amanda Held Opelt
Reviewed by Jennifer Burns Lewis
Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is a sorrow halved.”
– Swedish Proverb
I have two beloved colleagues who are well acquainted with grief. They have used their experiences of deep personal loss to study grief and have intentionally used their learning and their experience to assist others. They are excellent pastors who anticipate the needs of those navigating grief and loss with grace. They are the people I have most appreciated having nearby when I have encountered grief. I look to them for reminders as well as new insights about grieving and grieving well. They understand.
Author Amanda Held Opelt is also well acquainted with sorrow and deep grief. A series of losses, including three miscarriages, the death of her grandmother, and the catastrophic illness and subsequent death of her beloved sister, author Rachel Held Evans, set Opelt on a search for understanding the deep sorrow that she was experiencing. As a thoughtful writer with the courage to pose difficult questions about the nature of grief and what makes loss and bereavement particularly challenging in these times, Opelt researched many of the ways in which humans have developed grief rituals. The result is a very helpful book that will speak to any reader who desires to better understand their own journey, or to be helpful to others in the navigation of great loss.
An article about historic grief rituals from across the world sparked Opelt’s interest and started her on the road of exploring the history of grief. She learned that while many rituals from non-Western cultures are still practiced today, most that found their origins in Western cultures have ceased, due to what the author terms “cultural amalgamation and modernization.” I was reminded of Jessica Mitford’s classic book on the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, when reading A Hole in the World , as both authors lament the ways in which Western societies have sanitized death. Opelt argues that we are the poorer as a people for having lost or forgotten some of the old rituals as well as the loss of the role of the community in helping individuals address their grief.
In twelve chapters, Opelt shares research, family stories and the heritage of others to introduce practices that have helped others observe the death of another. Keening, covering mirrors, sympathy cards, wearing black and tolling the bell are some of the more familiar observances Opelt offers as examples of rituals that help us to grieve and to heal. In a particularly moving chapter entitled “Casseroles,”Opelt offers story after story, and example after example, of ways in which the offering of food to one who is bereaved is an act of radical hospitality, inviting the mourner to eat, to live in the face of death. To conclude this chapter, as she does in many of the other chapters, Opelt offers some beautiful examples from biblical texts to underscore her thesis that eating is proof of life, that that food features prominently in scripture for this reason. “It is an act of faith that abundance still exists,” she writes, “even as you recover from an encounter with sorrow. (81)
Recovery from sorrow was the purpose of Opelt’s research and writing. In researching both quaint and very powerful customs that invited encounters with mourners and with mourning, the author assists us all in discovering as well as remember the details of the customs and where their observance both stems from and leads. The legends and lore surrounding involving bees in the work of grief frame the book’s chapter on fear of death and loss. “Telling the Bees” is the title of a John Greenleaf Whitter poem, which describes the story of a man who returns to the home of his love, to find the servant girl informing the bees of her mistress’s death. Bees were to be kept informed of all family milestones. What’s tricky is that bees are apparently very sensitive to the fear humans exude, and so telling the bees was to be done without betraying one’s fears. Opelt writes exactly what the reader is wondering: “I wonder how this ritual of telling the bees played out for a family in mourning. How does one share of the passing of a loved one while maintaining the relaxed serenity with which you are supposed to approach a hive of wary bees? How was a widow, servant, or orphan supposed to reassure the bees when their own life had been turned upside down? No doubt, the ritual itself required that one momentarily collect oneself and calm the quickened spirit. The song was gently, but the reality was cruel. And I wonder if the bees could smell he sadness underneath the composure. Could they smell the fear?” (42)
A Hole in the World is a beautiful tapestry of research about customs surrounding death. It is also a chronicle of the author’s own encounters with grief. It is here, in these personal stories of Opelt’s own experience that one finds the brightest lights of hope. Throughout her book, Opelt is honest about her own journey, doubts and fears included. She admits that her grief is fresh and that her vocabulary for her grief is unrefined. It’s refreshing to read a book that does not profess great wisdom for the ages or even a prescription for healing. What she does offer, transparently and with winsome candor, is that she was unprepared for the severity and weight of grief and mourning, but that she has learned, through observing some of the “old” practices, to begin to find a way through her grief. And she offers the observation and the challenge of the power of ritual in community.
Opelt concludes A Hole in the World with some thoughtful questions worth the Church’s consideration, and individuals’ considerations as well. She writes: “Let’s not move quickly along as we do with so many of our hurts and discomforts these days. Could we creatively engage and discern together new ways to move our bodies into the motions of grief? Could we be fully present in our bodies? Could we write new scripts for sharing condolence and offering one another comfort? Could we rediscover rituals for our own time, our own place? Could we try it together?” (211)
I am so grateful to have friends like my two beloved colleagues to help me grow in my understanding and ability to embrace the depth of grieving. I am also grateful for the resource that is A Hole in the World, and especially for its candid, humble and intellectual honest author, Amanda Held Opelt.
Jennifer Burns Lewis
Jennifer Burns Lewis is a Presbyterian Church (USA) Minister of Word and Sacrament with over thirty years of parish ministry experience. She has served for the past six years as the Visioning and Connecting Leader for the Presbytery of Wabash Valley in Indiana.