Why the Unapologetic Sadness of Holy Week Matters to Me

Remember_You_Are_Dust copy

original art by lizzie mcmanus 

We had a death in the family this week. On my spouse’s side.

Standing in the three-hour-long receiving line, i heard it over and over: she has been promoted. She’s in a better place now. We’re sorry for us but happy for her.

These are not, inherently, terrible things to say to someone grieving. This death was sad, but it was the kind of death that was long expected and happened surrounded by family. So to tell her family that we will be okay, is not as insensitive as it was, say, when my cousins were killed before they had even graduated middle and high school. Then, it felt like people were so horrified by our wailing and so afraid it might happen to them (or our wailing reminded them of when it did happen to them) that they wanted us to hurry up and get out of sight, to get better and stop reminding them of the banality of senseless loss. Grieving people are painful to be around.

It is far easier for me to hear people’s concern and good intentions when the death felt natural, and right, and known.

I get why we default to these heavenly-happy platitudes: there is a gaping wound open for all to see and usually, wounds are for our consumptive entertainment or for tucking back into the closet. So we reach for what we have, which is our faith, and we offer it. Out of love, out of empathy, out of deep, deep care.

But if i’m honest, words like these still feel a little callous- even when it is given from the depths of care and concern.

Death is the only guarantee we have in life, and still, we do not know what to say when it comes.

I believe she is in heaven, whatever the hell that means. (I don’t mean that as a Christian, i don’t believe in heaven; i mean that i think any words we use to describe angels and fairy clouds and paradise all feel cheap and empty, and so i err on the side of incandescent light and dark beyond all our words and knowing).

I believe she is not in pain, that we did what was right and good … and i am still sad.

I appreciate the affirmation of her good life, i am thankful for shared memories and for my mother cleaning out our fridge because i really needed it clean and i was too slumped with grief to do it myself.

I believe in the resurrection. I know it was Mary who saw him, bedraggled and dirty, and she was so clouded with agony and he so messy from the breaking-open that is rebirth that she did not know him – at first. Easter is coming, Easter is here –

but today, today i am thankful for Holy Week.

Today, my knees are still sore from cramming them against the seat-backs of the car, the five of us in heavy silence driving from nursing home to funeral home to church and back again. Today, i am too tired to read for Ethics class but too anxious about falling behind to give myself needed rest.

Today i am in the belly of grief. The ache of an empty chair, the fear of what life means now, the exhaustion of being so sad my muscles hurt.

Today, i do not want to hear about the Resurrection not because i do not believe it is true, but because you cannot see the miracle of the Resurrection without painfully witnessing that there was first guttural grief. 

I don’t mean to say that Jesus’ suffering valorizes ours, or that we only know the good times because we know the bad, or that she was taken from us for a reason.

I actually don’t think Jesus came to die for our sins.

I think Jesus came to live for us, and we killed him.

We were so afraid of what it meant for the lion to lie with the lamb, for wealth to mean a wide and welcoming heart rather than two pairs of shoes, for power to be in walking with the disabled and the sick and the homeless and the sluts and the greedy – we were so afraid of God, we killed him.

And in Holy Week, we remember both how we hurt one another and we remember that God is with us in the hurt, kissing the knees we fold up to bury our faces behind and forgiving our cruelties and curling up under the covers with us. 

Sometimes i wonder if Holy Week is the only time that we think crying in church for something besides a funeral is not something to be embarrassed of. I know that’s a bit sensantionalist, but maybe what i mean is this: that Holy Week is literally the church year saying you are 100% allowed to be sad, and angry, and guilty, and free all at once, and you don’t have to explain it to anyone, including yourself. And these painful things can be holy, too.

Grief feels like that to me. It’s guilt for the words i did not say. It’s sorrow for what i have lost and it’s a self-reprimanding for my own selfishness. And grief is unpredictable and wild and i think it matters that God grieved Her son and that God’s first preachers grieved Him too.

I heard a sermon once that called Holy Saturday the breath, the day after the funeral is over and the flowers that were on the coffin are now wilting on your table, and when you can’t get out of pajamas but you can’t stop fretting over the million things that you have to do, and how that one, habituated, passing thought – we ought to go visit Granny this week – suddenly rips wide the million things that are now so, so different.

Today, i am thankful that we remember each year what it means to live before resurrection, and how it aches to be left looking at a full grave. I am thankful, because even though i know we do not stay here, even though we do not let the trauma consume us, we hold that this un-rushed, felt-out, painful trauma is also a part of our song. 



to purchase the print pictured above, you can go here.



4 thoughts on “Why the Unapologetic Sadness of Holy Week Matters to Me

  1. Marnie Murray says:

    So good Lizzie. I’m sorry for your loss, and glad that you have family with you while you grieve.

    I think about grief a lot, and why people are afraid of it, and why people get uncomfortable when I said I cried 2 days ago, and I think bell hooks says it best:

    “Sustained grief is particularly disturbing in a culture that offers a quick fix for pain. Sometimes it amazes me to know intuitively that the grieving are all around us yet we do not see any overt signs of their anguished spirits. We are taught to feel shame about grief that lingers. Like a stain on our clothes, it marks us as flawed, imperfect. To cling to grief, to desire its expression, is to be out of sync with modern life, where the hip do not get bogged down in mourning.”

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