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Sackcloth and Ashes: Uniting our Grief

jstevenson | Journeys through Grief

In the ancient world, a symbol of mourning was the wearing of coarse clothes, often referred to as sackcloth and one would rub ashes on themselves or sit in them. It’s where we get the term “sackcloth and ashes.” It is a powerful symbol of grief, sorrow, and sadness. An example of this is in the Hebrew Bible in the book of Job. Job has lost everything, and his friends come to support him and grieve with him. Job is so despondent and so deep in his sorrow that when the friends come upon him, they don’t recognize him at first, then they tear their clothes (another ancient mourning ritual) and cover themselves with dust. Then the story says, “and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”

We have lost our outward cultural symbols for mourning. Most of our grief and morning is done in private, hidden away inconspicuously from the outside world. We have funerals and memorial services and many of those, especially during the pandemic were moved to private gatherings. All of this makes one’s grieving more difficult. It is other people around us, supporting us, sitting in the chairs close to us during the services that provide much of the strength and comfort that we need as grievers. When we are separated from others in grief, we are deprived of crucial resources for moving through grief.

That is why what Job’s friends did for him in this moment is truly a gift.

           They came to him.

           They joined in his sorrow by participating in the rituals of tearing their clothes and covering themselves in dust.

           They didn’t speak to him to try and fix his pain, explain it, or take it away from him. They kept silent, “for they saw that his suffering was very great.”

In our quickly changing digital age, with its new customs and expectations, can we find contemporary rituals and cultural expressions that encompass the same kind of participating in another’s grief? In your grief, did someone come to you, joining you in your sorrow thereby bringing you the comfort and strength you needed?