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By David Bachelor, PhD
Pastor, Pearsall 1st Methodist Church
Last Friday, the town of New London, Texas held a memorial service to remember a tragedy that happened long before most of the attendants were born. The headline for Baptistnews.com was, “On this Date 85 Years Ago, the Worst School Tragedy in American History Occurred.” On March 18, 1937, a gas-explosion killed 294 students and staff. Nearly the same number were wounded. New London and the surrounding communities grieved their lost loved ones for decades.
Grief is in other headlines this week. Over on the Emerald Isle, the Irish Times reported, “Coronavirus: Grief and Gratitude Marked in Wake of Pandemic.” The article featured memorial services held across Ireland for those who died during the two years of COVID-19. These services included gratitude for sacrifices made by healthcare workers. In Dublin, Michael D. Higgins (the President of Ireland) said, “We recall how hard it was that there was no space for those normal expressions of grief that had to be curtailed because of the restrictions imposed [by the virus].” These public observances were intended to assist those “who could not release their grief.”
A headline from Colorado addressed a slightly more concise period of grief. The Gazette reports, “Boulder Continues Processing Grief, Making Peace As 1-Year Anniversary of Massacre at King Soopers Looms.” King Soopers is a Boulder supermarket where a gunman killed 10 people on March 22, 2021. In the initial period after the calamity, the residents of Boulder embraced the motto “Boulder Strong” to symbolize a commitment to resiliency. For months following the tragedy banners with this phrase hung in every window. A year later, most of the banners have come down, but as the Gazette notes, “This mountain oasis, defined by arts and outdoors, happiness and herbal tea, is still processing its grief and making peace, if such a thing is possible.”
Long term grief, like the type shown in New London, Boulder, and Ireland, is now a diagnosable mental illness. On Friday, a New York Times headline asked, “How Long Should It Take to Grieve? Psychiatry Has Come Up with an Answer.” The article featured one of the recent changes in DSM5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition), the book clinicians must use when determining mental illness. The Times article notes “prolonged grief disorder” may be present if a person is “incapacitated, pining and ruminating a year after a loss, and unable to return to previous activities.” The change in the DSM comes “at a moment when many Americans are overwhelmed by loss.”
The Bible contains many instances that would fit DSM5 criteria for prolonged grief disorder. When Jesus was born, King Herod had his troops kill all the boys, two years old and under, who were in the vicinity of Bethlehem (Matt 2:16). The grief this produced was prophesied by the prophet Jeremiah, “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt 2:18). “Rachel” symbolizes all the mothers who lost children to Herod’s violence. The Bible does not condemn these mothers for being “incapacitated, pining and ruminating a year after a loss, and unable to return to previous activities.”
In the New York Times article, a psychiatric epidemiologist noted “for most people, symptoms of grief peaked in the six months after the death.” This same clinician estimates “4 percent of bereaved individuals…remained ‘stuck and miserable.’” It is a good thing Jesus did not quantify which people would receive help after a loss. Nor did he specify how quickly they needed to seek his help. Jesus merely says to all, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt 5:4).