DIY Faith Opinion

Grief hides in the church bathroom

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

(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.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

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.)

About the author

Kaitlin Curtice

83 Comments

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  • This is an excellent article. I don’t agree with some of the authors points; but I think the point of the article is spot on.
    As human beings, we all weep alone; we all suffer alone. It may help to weep in groups, but unfortunately; our sorrow is ours to bear alone.
    I have wept in church; and have seen others weep. In my own sorrow, I try to to not show my pain to others – I sit in the pew, surrounded by my own family and try to hold the tears in. Why? I don’t know.
    I have seen others weep and felt sorrow for them. I figured they suffered a loss as I had, yet I went on my way. I thought about them after mass and throughout the day; yet I never said anything to them. Why? I don’t know.
    Maybe because to aporoach someone in pain takes time and effort. You have to ask. Then listen. And maybe then feel uncomfortable. Perhaps it takes you out of your own comfort zone. It may be easy for some, but difficult for others.
    Anyway, I will try to do better in the future.

  • Kaitlin, this is a beautifully written reflection! I like what you asked: why do people have to hide in bathrooms to grieve… what are we so afraid of?

    I think, many times, our churches haven’t given people permission to grieve publicly, which then makes it shameful to grieve privately (at least church circles I’ve been in).

    And we don’t do a good job demonstrating to others how to simply SIT and LISTEN and BE PRESENT and to NOT try to “FIX THE PROBLEM” (again… in the church circles I’ve been in).

    I’m hoping to change that.

    Thank you for this post!

  • I appreciate the author’s feelings and I share her frustrations with the institutional Church. It’s one of the sad realities of contemporary society that we mask suffering and death behind feel-good platitudes. I think it’s also part of the megachurch phenomenon, where glitz, entertainment and pop psychology are stressed over the presentation of anything that might harsh our collective mellow.

    Still, Ash Wednesday is coming up in a couple of weeks and, interestingly, it’s traditionally the most attended Church day of the year after Christmas and Easter. That’s amazing for a liturgy that isn’t required and is essentially a stark reminder of mortality. What that says to me is, despite our death-denying, youth-worshipping culture, there’s something within the human spirit that wants to embrace the truth of suffering and death so as to make sense of them in our own lives.

    It’s been said that the purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. If all we’re getting out of liturgy is one half of that equation, we’re not being exposed to the fullness of the Paschal Mystery.

  • “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.”

    Thanks. That’s a big sentence. The first thing we have to realize is that any church which is big enough to have a handwashing station like the one in the photo is a place designed for attendees to meet the needs of the church more than the other way around. Only individuals can help other individuals with grief. Groups, even small groups, can’t do it very well. Large groups can’t do it at all—–because large groups can only do large-group behaviors and everyone in them is expected to just fall in line for whatever that is.

  • I’m very interested in learning more about the concept of having a Hannah service, or any service in general that is specifically for lament and sharing grief with others. Does anyone have any information about how to go about holding this type of service? It’s sad in and of itself that it’s so rare, I wouldn’t even know where to begin…

  • i appreciate your sensitivity, but you are painting all churches with a broad brush. i agree that many are like what you describe, but all are not. part of the problem is that many of us don’t know how to comfort others or lament. it is something not native to our culture. but i can assure you that there are churches where you can find people who do know how to comfort and lament with you. there are churches that present a GOD who is more than someone who is merely happy all the time. it makes me sad when i read posts that condemn the church for not being what they need/want when i know there are churches that exist that are like what they want. are you willing to look in places you haven’t previously looked before? do you limit yourself by denomination? just wondering what keeps you from finding a place where you can comfortably worship GOD with people who are more like-minded. i don’t mean to make life more difficult for you, but i have been in a variety of churches over the years and know that what you are looking for is not impossible to find. it’s for sure that no church will be perfect, but you may need to make a change…and I don’t often say that to people.

  • General purpose and non-denominational:

    http://www{DOT}emptyarmsbereavement.org/rituals/

    For use in a liturgical church, this one is from the Episcopal Church:

    https://www{DOT}churchpublishing.org/siteassets/pdf/liturgies-and-prayers-related-to-childbearing/enrichingourworship5.pdf

  • “A God who cares about personal holiness but not about institutional injustice and abuse.” Luke 6:31 English Standard Version (ESV) 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

    Luke 6:32-42 English Standard Version (ESV) 32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”
    1 Peter 3:9 ESV Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing
    Ephesians 4:32 ESV Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
    He cares how we treat each other.

  • ” I thought of my Potawatomi ancestors, who were forced from their home by settler colonialism and whose history and culture were erased.”

    Romans 12:19 English Standard Version (ESV) 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it[a] to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

    “Indigenous peoples are not often welcomed into the church, and if we are, we do it by leaving our culture at the door.” baloney. There are churches all over reserves – all over North America

    “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.” Romans 12:15 English Standard Version (ESV) 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

    ” 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.” Matthew 5:4 ESV
    “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

    “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.” So you are upset that they are going to be with the Lord, or, are you selfishly upset because you couldn’t help them into a relationship with Christ?

  • I have to leave my keyboard, drenched with tears to get a towel for someone who chose to attack the church rather than lifting it up for a liberal audience.

    The article is pathetic!

  • Kaitlin, it is good to bring this matter to our attention. Grieving is difficult and many of us shy away from those who grieve fearing we may too suffer a calamity. I know, because I’ve been there and walked past grieving folks in my own church foyer. I think we also hide our grief fearing those accusing voices which ask what is it that we have done to bring the calamity upon ourselves.
    I recently began reading a book by Rebekah Eklund that has broadened by understanding. She wrestles with this idea of lament and grief in a fascinating and insightful work, “Jesus Wept: The Significance of Jesus’ Laments in the New Testament.”
    From what I’ve learned so far, she sees lament—individual and corporate lament– as an expression that comes from the core of our being. We realize things are not as they should be. We cry out for healing, for redemption, for justice. We know intuitively that God is about life and justice. But Death sets itself against life—fists raised in rebellion to the Creator of Life. Death sets about destroying and oppressing all that God loves and holds dear. I think deep down everyone realizes this whether they are a person of faith or not.
    Lamenting and grieving is certainly hard work for both the griever and the consoler. I just lament the fact that we even need to have a reminder to carry one another’s burdens.

  • Parker, you need to talk to others sometimes to clue them in.
    My experience is advising the church that my dad had died and they were interested in coming to the funeral. My pastor who had been sick all week, attended. My brothers and sisters in the Lord attended and were there for comfort. I think from reading your note, that if we don’t tell others, then how can we blame the church?

  • I agree. I don’t blame the church (or anyone) at all. I think most people suffer alone – afraid to open up to anyone other than a close friend or spouse.
    If people don’t know; they can’t help.

  • I hear you, Kaitlin. I am very emotional and it’s too hard to share new, hard grief in a church where all is mellow and quiet…so quiet. On the other hand I find it hard to know what to say to those grieving when the situation is so hard for them. We need to do better in the church.

  • I think we all do, to an extent. Sometimes we forget that we are brothers and sisters – we can certainly fight like them! Blessings

  • not trolling whatsoever – protecting people from her statements, yes.
    There are enough people on this blog who hate Christians, and through allowing her to accuse the church of abusing her, and getting paid to be “victim of the church”, by writing an article, she needs to be corrected

  • I disagree. Her experience is her experience, and she is sharing it. You are not in charge of anyone. Throwing scriptures at people, calling their blog “baloney”, I disagree with all of that. And I don’t care what you think about that.

  • Well, it seems that there’s something wrong if on needs to search to find a church where people are able to understand grief and react in a helpful manner. It would seem to me that this ought to be something that ought to be found in all churches, not just the rare ones that need to be looked for, like a needle in a haystack.

  • I think that the discomfort with pain and suffering is an American phenomenon. We put a very high value on always being upbeat. People who share pain are often categorized as whiners, or worse. It’s not surprising, although sad, that this attitude permeates churches.

  • I’m not reinforcing any of your comments. There is something wrong with the congregations in churches were people who are suffering are not shown compassion.

  • It’s not God who victimizes people, but other people. Your comments are an example of such attempts to victimize others

  • “It would seem to me that this ought to be something that ought to be found in all churches, not just the rare ones that need to be looked for, like a needle in a haystack.”
    ” It’s not surprising, although sad, that this attitude permeates churches”
    You adequately showed why I placed my comments..

  • Her first complaint was about God “A God who cares about personal holiness but not about institutional injustice and abuse.” Then, she turns herself into His victim.

  • Having you read your stuff for quite awhile, I must say that really is the pot calling the kettle black.

  • More correctly, permeates the Americans who attend American churches.

    Churches don’t have attitudes.

  • “And I don’t care what you think about that.” certainly bespeaks your lack of regard for the notion that Sandi’s experience is her experience.

  • If she has any interest:
    2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

  • I so appreciated reading this article…thank you so much. All around us, people are hurting…so if I err, let it be on the side of kindness…caring…compassion, not just offering pat answers, quick fixes, “microwave surgery.” Let my speech, Lord, be that which will be like apples of gold in settings of silver to others, so that they may be a balm in Gilead to a hurting heart.

    It’s okay to cry…

  • I just have to ask: who are you Sandi and Mark and don’t you think listening to others patiently and in humility is a much better path than pushing Bible verses and childish arguments at them? I think Proverbs says something about fools and listening (12:15-16 to be exact). But oh well, I’ll just wait for your demonstration of the fruits of the spirit at me.

  • And BTW, as someone who lost a child tragically, yes, some churches have been supportive of me. But some have pushed me to the side. Christ would never do that so it should be rarely occurring rather than regularly occurring.

  • Thank you for sharing this article. This resonates with me. Several years ago, a friend’s son came out as gay. I walked a long, painful journey with her as mutual friends in our slick, professional, Jesus worshipping/celebrating evangelical church turned on her family like a pack of wolves. The profound grief she experienced was at the loss and betrayal of her support community in her time of greatest need. Walking with her, grieving with her opened my eyes to so much spiritual abuse in the church that I had previously been unaware. Your experience, my friend’s experience and countless others exposes a cancer in the modern American church. Pithy sayings and insensitive reciting of bible verses shared with the intent of shaming and silencing the one grieving are all too common responses to grief.

  • I have to ask: who are you Lisa Martinez and don’t think letting people who have opinions and perspectives different than your own express them is precisely why there are comments appended to each article?

    Do you really believe it reasonable to expect a minister of a church to say “Your Potawatomi ancestors mattered. The lives of the
    oppressed matter. The generational trauma you carry in your bones
    matters.”?

    I am not sure what spirit your comment is the fruit of.

  • Mark (his current alias) is the resident RNS expert on everything. Sandimonious is the resident expert on the Bible, but only the English translation, as she has no idea about the Hebrew or Greek and is proud of that fact.

  • The Church is the people, people have attitudes, so individual congregations can certainly have attitudes.

  • If this comment thread is at all representative of church members/Christians, one can certainly see why people grieve alone. And why some of them leave. You’d get more Christlike charity and compassion at a meeting of atheists than from some of the commenters here (and some churches I’ve visited over the years).

  • I’m curious as to why you’d respond that way to the previous comment. Where in Angie’s account of how her friend was treated is there any indication of anyone being asked to love anyone’s sin?

  • You recognized that I was responding to a comment, and then ask me where I found what I commented on the article.

    I would have looked at the comment to which I responded.

    In fact, I did.

  • It is clearly NOT a fabrication, as anyone with eyes and ears can see and hear. If you believe the “report” compiled by a bunch of Catholics protecting their own, then you are not using your own powers of observation.

  • The evidence is simply overwhelming that it was an invention of the those in favor of abortion and opposed to the Catholic Church for the faithful like yourself and Alexandra who apparently will believe anything.

    https://www{DOT}yahoo.com/entertainment/usa-today-reporter-kirsten-powers-000232398.html

    https://www{DOT}washingtonpost.com/national/diocese-reverses-course-clears-covington-catholic-high-school-students-of-wrongdoing-after-investigation-of-viral-incident-on-mall/2019/02/13/c11195f8-2fa7-11e9-8ad3-9a5b113ecd3c_story.html?utm_term=.6a2d4719f07f

    http://www{DOT}michaelpramirez.com/uploads/3/4/9/8/34985326/mrz012319-color-1-6mb_1_orig.jpg

    Alt-nutcase mileage may vary.

  • David is a psychologist, which in today’s world of neo-paganism is the equivalent of a theologian in a Christian society.

    He began posting in RNS when folks from JoeMyGod{DOT}com and wandering souls from the closed National Catholic Reporter Comments dominated the discussions.

    Since then the conversations have moved back to a more balanced selection of discussion, often with pro and con a particular issue well expressed, and he now feels a bit lost.

    Thus “resident RNS expert on everything” and similar ad hominems since, when it comes to facts he has few.

  • This is the beauty of Orthodox Christianity. We talk about death constantly. We act out our worship with all sides of ourselves. We are not afraid to grieve. Our services are centered around not just the Gospels, but the Psalms as well, which delve into the depths of human emotion and expression. We are literally told to weep with those who weep, so why should the Church be so different from that idea? We use liturgy and calendar cycles to express EVERYTHING about broken humanity, to the infinite God who became fully human. This is the way Christians are meant to worship; coming as they are in community. Dirty, earthy, tangible; whatever emotions or lack thereof that manifest. The idea that the Church is a hospital and Christ the Great Physician is a pillar theme in Orthodox Christianity for good reason. We are all broken and in need of healing!

  • I didn’t ask where you found what you commented in the article; I know you were responding to a comment, which I had read carefully. Again, I can’t see anything indicative of anyone being asked to love sin. It merely says that her friend and the whole family were shunned by their church simply because the son said he was gay. Whatever one’s position on same sex relationships, simply having a particular orientation and telling the truth about it is hardly grounds for a person and their entire family to be cold-shouldered by their brothers and sisters in Christ.

  • Most Christians make a distinction between same sex inclinations and same sex activity.

    For example, this is from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

    “2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”

  • Btw, as to “I didn’t ask where you found what you commented in the article; I know you were responding to a comment, which I had read carefully.”, you wrote:

    https://disqus.com/home/discussion/religionnews/grief_hides_in_the_church_bathroom/#comment-4350017929

    “Where in Angie’s account of how her friend was treated is there any indication of anyone being asked to love anyone’s sin?”

    so, yes, you did ask where I found what I commented on.

  • That’s pretty much my point. Which again, brings us back to the original question of where anyone is being asked to condone sin…

  • I asked where you found what you commented on *in the comment you were responding to* – I.e . in Angie’s story – not in the article itself.

    And with respect, you still haven’t answered my original, simple question.

  • And with respect, your clarity in communication is so lacking I have no idea whatsoever of what you’re hunting for or why.

    I have, however, formed the distinct impression whatever it is I be wise to avoid responding to it.

  • That most certainly was the question I asked you. I’ll repeat it for the sake of clarity; where in Angie’s story is anyone being asked to condone (love) someone’s sin?

  • My communication has been nothing but clear, while you have danced around the issue, repeatedly dodged responding and finally come out with something vague and pious sounding about it being unwise to answer a very simple question.

    I can only conclude that you are unable to justify your response to Angie’s comment and are looking for any reason to avoid doing so. What a shame!

    It’s obviously fruitless trying to converse with you on this so I’m ending this exchange here.

  • You seem to have some problems, and they appear to be in more than communication.

    I answered you once I could figure out what it was you were trying to understand.

    One suggestion:

    I would not use the same picture for your avatar on Disqus as, say, you do on Facebook or social media.

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