In 2019, Amanda Held Opelt lived through an unthinkable “season of loss,” during which she mourned three miscarriages, the death of her grandmother, and the sudden death of her older sister, bestselling author Rachel Held Evans, who died following complications from the flu.
Awash in grief, Opelt, a social worker who lived abroad and served in the humanitarian aid sector before she became a writer and mother to two young children, turned to the mourning rituals of different cultures for refuge and wisdom. Her debut book, A Hole in the World: Finding Hope in Rituals of Grief and Healing (Worthy, July 18) chronicles her quest for insight and explores both what Americans can learn from normalizing difficult emotions and why “grief is not just sadness.”
You write that Americans have forgotten how to grieve. Can you explain?
I think that as a society in America, we don’t do a good job of acknowledging and naming our sorrows, disappointments, griefs. We think that we can life-hack our way to wellness, success, and prosperity, but there's no hack for grief. You really have to confront it. You have to name it. You have to acknowledge the impact it had on you.
What is one thing you’ve learned from different grief and mourning rituals?
Irish keening was the biggest “a-ha moment” for me, because in that practice, you see people being given permission to weep, to wail, to lose it publicly. And that's not exactly something that's affirmed in our society. It made me realize we have this backwards. We see strength as holding it together, whereas other societies have said, "No, it is appropriate to fall apart in the aftermath of a loved one's death. That's normal. That's part of the journey."
What have you learned is universal about grief and what's specific to different types of losses?
There are different expectations around different losses, whether that's miscarriage, which is a very hidden grief, grieving someone who's lived a long life, or grieving a very sudden death. One of the biggest lessons has been that grief is not just sadness. There's fear, anxiety, anger, survivor's guilt, and regret. If I just felt sad, I would feel like that was a luxury—but you have all these different swirling emotions, and you're having to process them each differently.
How do you think the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted our ability to grieve?
Throughout history, catastrophic events often lead to the loss of grief rituals. Some people think it was the bubonic plague of the 1340s that was the first step in the breakdown of Western grief rituals, because too many people were dying for people to be ritualistically grieved. World War I is when people stopped wearing black clothing because they thought it would be too demoralizing to see so many people wearing black. And we've seen that again in Covid-19 because we couldn't gather for funerals. I hope we live with recognition that life is fragile, that we need to make the most of the time that we have, embrace our loved ones, and be honest with one another about death.
How did writing this book impact your faith journey?
Evangelicals didn't do a great job preparing me for death and grief. But when I decided to dig into historic understandings and practices of grief, I found that the Bible has a lot more to say about death and grief than I ever knew. In fact, it seemed to call people to be honest about their sorrow. I found great comfort in being reintroduced to a faith that held space for the mystery of death and the fact that we don't have answers to all of our sorrows. I think that mystery strengthened my faith rather than hurting it.
There’s been so much written about “Prolonged Grief Disorder,” a new diagnosis to describe extended, disruptive grief. How do you feel about diagnosing grief?
If adding this disorder into the [Diagnostic Statistical Manual] DSM allows people to get more access to care through their insurance, then I'm all for it. But I think we have to be careful about what the purpose of that diagnostic tool is, because if you label grief as disorder, then you are normalizing happiness and marginalizing suffering, pain, and grief. We have got to get to a point in society where we all affirm together that negative, uncomfortable emotions have a holy place in our lives. The reason my grief endures is because my love for my sister, for my grandmother, endures. I don't want to be cured of that.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer and coauthor of ‘The Yoga Effect: A Proven Program for Depression and Anxiety’ (Da Capo / Lifelong, 2019).