Sackcloth and Ashes: Relearning the Art of Grieving

By Katie Heid
It didn’t take long after a teen gunman shot up a Parkland, Florida high school and killed 17 people last week for talk to turn from “That’s so horrible” to “Something must be done.”

Students were still locked in closets and running for cover as the social justice warriors and trolls on social media spewed propaganda all over the internet.  Divisive politicians shouted from their high horses while Parkland parents waited to receive word whether their sons and daughters had made it to safety.  Some eventually sighed with relief; 17 other families bitterly wept.

The devastating reality that unfolded last week should break us for more than two minutes.  After all, who has time to mourn when there are impressionable teens that can be manipulated to advance a political agenda?

The drama on display should disgust us all.

My message for parents who are blessed with kids to take to school tomorrow is simple: get it together.  Stop praising “moxie” and activism.  Instead, pull your kids aside and speak one sentence.

“It’s time to grieve.”

Grief is a necessity that’s been lost in 21st century America.  It’s difficult to name specific grief customs outside of visitations, wakes, and services.  I’d argue those are more procedural than customary.  As soon as the coffin is lowered into the ground, we scurry back to work, back to school, back to life.  We distract ourselves with projects, booze, television, exercise, or political marches to busy ourselves.  Although part of healing can eventually come from meaningful activity, we must create room between a loved one’s death and our new normal to allow a grieving period.

In the Old Testament, there are countless examples of people who observed a grieving custom known as sackcloth and ashes.  People would don a grief garment and douse their head with ashes for extended periods of time.  It communicated to the world personal mourning, as well as acknowledgement of a natural disaster, repentance, or prayer.  The sackcloth did not provide a comfortable wardrobe, and the ashes signified misery.

While we’d be hard pressed to find a teenager who would dress this way today, we can still teach them the spirit of sackcloth and ashes grieving.

Give them space to grieve. Being strong” and “getting back to normal” has no business in this space.  How does your teen process shock?  Is she an introvert or extrovert?  Does she like to talk or journal?  Does he like to shoot baskets or go running?  Sometimes this space doesn’t involve Mom or Dad all the time, but we let them know we’re not far away.

Guard their grieving space. Only safe people who have your kids’ best interests at heart are allowed in.  Send all others packing.  This is not a time to change the world or bear its burdens.  That’s our job.  Don’t weigh down a teen with an adult’s responsibility.

Go to counseling and support groups. Christian therapists can serve as a good sounding board for teens following a tragedy.  In addition to sadness teens can typically feel isolated, confused, distant, and guilty, after a significant loss.  If your teen finds one-on-one sessions lacking, then group discussions can fill the gap.  Talking to others with similar experiences helps one move through the grief space.

God is still good.  Grief, at its best, is a complex process.  When a loved one is ripped unexpectedly from a teen’s life, it can cause even the strongest Christian to question God’s will, sovereignty, and goodness.  Is your teen angry at God?  Is his faith rattled?  Does he doubt everything he’s been taught?  It’s okay, at least during the grief time.  Meanwhile, parents and trusted adults pray for God to mend their teenagers’ hearts as only the Creator can.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 gives us a good guide regarding the ebb and flow of this world:

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:  

a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,  

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.

There’s wisdom in the order of the words above: grief must be faced before talking and action can be considered.  It’s our responsibility to teach the custom to our kids.



Uncomfortable Grace

Also see Katie Heid at “Uncomfortable Grace” on Facebook

About the author:

Katie Heid has spent the better part of her career talking.  Whether it’s been as a women’s retreat speaker, member of her church’s speaking team, radio and television reporter, teacher, or a mom who has to repeat things one too many times, it’s clear she’s got the gift of gab.  She also loves Jesus and people.  Her lifelong journey with Jesus has shown her that since His greatest passion is loving people, that should be her passion, too.  Katie lives a chaotic life in Michigan with her husband and two sons.  It’s a life she wouldn’t trade for the world. (Although, she would rent it out in exchange for a good nap.)

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