(RNS) — A friend of mine recently lost her daughter, an 8-month-old baby who was just beginning to get to know the world around her.
I saw my friend at church not long afterward, a grieving mother holding so much in and around her. As we entered the sanctuary, I could feel something in the air. It felt like grief lingered all around us.
In the middle of worship, while the congregation was preparing to celebrate the coming of Jesus at Christmas, my friend left the room.
I followed after her.
We ended up on the church’s bathroom floor, weeping together, as people came and went, unsure what to say to us. We chose to grieve together in that moment instead of holding things together for the sake of others’ comfort.
Church is often like that.
We celebrate together in worship but grieve alone.
That Sunday wasn’t the only time I’ve cried alone in the church bathroom, feeling invisible while the rest of the congregation celebrated.
A few months earlier, I had walked out of worship, unable to hold my grief and anger inside. We’d been singing songs about a victorious God, a God with a white beard and gavel, ready to judge the earth and strike out sin in the hearts of people.
A God who cares about personal holiness but not about institutional injustice and abuse.
Those of us who are asking questions of this version of God, and asking questions of the church that worships him, often find it hard to inhabit places of worship. We are asking hard questions that many Christians are not willing to answer.
Who will notice the oppressed, and who will grieve for those who came before us, for those who were abused by the church in the name of God?
That day as I asked these questions, the bathroom was the safest place for me to weep. I thought of my Potawatomi ancestors, who were forced from their home by settler colonialism and whose history and culture were erased.
But I wept alone.
No one came for me that day. No one said: “Your Potawatomi ancestors mattered. The lives of the oppressed matter. The generational trauma you carry in your bones matters.”
Indigenous peoples are not often welcomed into the church, and if we are, we do it by leaving our culture at the door.
In a similar way, people who grieve are often told to leave their grief at the door, and so we enter already knowing that we don’t enter with all of us.
This is not as it should be.
Teri Murphy, a licensed marital and family therapist, says that churches want to care for those who are grieving. But their good intentions often fall short.
“In an effort to relieve pain or distress, some pastors and fellow churchgoers may dismiss the grief, try to lighten it by sharing platitudes, scripture, mantras or silver lining,” she said. “They are seeking to relieve their own discomfort as they try to relieve the other’s. Even if the intentions are to cheer up the person, the message is one that tells the griever that their process isn’t OK or is taking too long, is too much or is not spiritually healthy.”
Even worse, Murphy said, grieving churchgoers feel ostracized and misunderstood, which adds to their pain and complicates their grief.
“What seems to work best for those supporting someone in the midst of grief is active support through compassion and empathy,” she said, “offering love, affirming that grief is painful, hard and disorienting, and allowing time and space for the grief process, including spiritual crisis.”
I decided that day, alone and grieving, that I am going to choose to wail with those who are wailing. When people are forgotten or shamed for their grief, they are cut off from the love and comfort that God can bring.
It means we aren’t really practicing Christianity anymore.
So why do people have to hide in bathrooms to grieve? Why do sanctuaries feel more sterile than comforting? Why is it that liturgy isn’t enough when the people speaking those words aren’t holding the grief around them?
What are we so afraid of?
I asked a question on Twitter and Facebook: How have you seen the church suppress grief? Answers flooded in.
“Lament becomes a sign of weakness and lack of faith,” one friend said. “There’s no embrace of the mystery that arises when facing pain & living alongside it.” Others shared stories about losing loved ones only to hear insensitive platitudes from members of their church, or pressure to move on and get over it.
They shared how the practice of funerals that turn into "celebrations of life" cover over the reality of grief and loss, creating church environments that don’t care for the needs of people left in pain.
Instead, we have Bible studies and we sing happy worship songs, telling each other it’s all going to be OK because God has everything under control and we should never question the will or ways of God.
So we use Band-Aids.
We cover up grief and hope that it will go away, because our sanctuaries are meant to be pristine and our services are meant to be planned and coordinated, not sloppy with tears and sadness.
That’s why so many of us retreat to church bathrooms, or to our cars in the parking lot, or to other churches, or outside church doors forever.
A few years ago, I helped facilitate a Hannah service at a church right around Mother’s Day. Hannah is a woman in the Hebrew Bible who struggles to have children for years before God gives her a son, Samuel. The point of the service is to create a safe space for women and mothers to grieve, and it was the first time I’d ever seen a church create a space specifically for mourning.
But this Hannah service was solely for grief.
It was for weeping and pouring out, for remembering and not being afraid to ask why. Led by my friend Shelley, I sat with women whose experiences I could not understand, and we held space together. I sang songs over them as we collectively practiced remembering and lamenting. We practiced something that the American church so often ignores.
We practiced deep grief.
Perhaps our churches should put aside planning meetings and sit in lament for the ways we have missed it, for the ways God has been turned into a prosperity gospel that rewards the happy and punishes the hurting.
Then perhaps, there will be fewer who grieve in the church bathroom, crying all alone and forgotten.
(Kaitlin Curtice is a Potawatomi author and speaker. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)