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The Independent Critic

 "A Hole in the World" Explores Rituals of Grief 

It was in the early pages of Amanda Held Opelt's "A Hold in the World: Finding Hope in Rituals of Grief and Healing" that I began to reflect upon my own experiences with grief.

This is not surprising, of course. "A Hole in the World" invites this introspection with a tenderness and wisdom that is rare. It's that invitation that helps to hold space for the hope contained within these pages as Held Opelt invites us both into our own spaces of grief and into an intelligent, insightful exploration of rituals, many of which have been largely left behind in contemporary culture, that offer valuable ways for all of us to lean into our grief in ways that are meaningful, honest, and genuinely helpful.

Had I not first read some promotional material for "A Hole in the World," I'd likely have been unaware that Held Opelt is the sister of New York Times bestselling author and beloved Christian voice Rachel Held Evans. As one of the wandering evangelicals drawn to Held Evans, and fortunate enough to meet her on a single occasion, I joined many in grieving the loss of one of the few Christian voices who seemed to "get" me.

For Amanda Held Opelt, Rachel's death came amidst a season of loss unlike anything she had ever experienced. It included not just her sister's death, but her own experiences with three miscarriages. These losses, we learn from "A Hole in the World," would leave Held Opelt at times feeling as if she were left struggling to stay afloat without a life jacket. Having never dealt with this intensity of grief, she suddenly found herself struggling to process her grief and with questions that her church seemed ill-equipped to answer.

"A Hole in the World" explores these questions like "What do I do now?," "Why didn't my faith prepare me for this kind of pain?," and "What does it mean to truly grieve?"

Amanda Held Opelt had these questions and she began searching for the answers.

If there is one thing I found refreshing about "A Hole in the World," it's that Held Opelt doesn't pretend to approach this writing from a place of expertise. Held Opelt approaches "A Hole in the World" through the unique lenses of both vulnerability and reason. She shares with us her grief, but she also shares with us her well-reasoned and deeply informed search for answers and discovery of rituals that served as vessels for pain and offered a place for the grief that leaves a hole in the world.

I struggled early on with "A Hole in the World," the book's unique rhythm relying less on histrionic emotional appeals and more on authentic showing up and using both emotion and intellect to journey through bereavement and loss and even the practicalities that impact us when we experience loss.

As someone who was born into a body that was initially given three days to live due to spina bifida (50+ years ago), I have undeniably experienced loss and grief throughout my entire life journey.

It was less than three years ago that I experienced the loss of a limb for the third time and it had been in the past two years that I have experienced the loss of my mother, my only brother, and a best friend who also was a key physical support as my journey with paraplegic/amputation continues. As someone who grew up with significant disabilities, I became accustomed to grief in my life as I watched others with spina bifida pass away at much younger ages and I experienced multiple significant losses in my young adult years that left me feeling ill-equipped for life.

And yet, it feels like so often we are expected to have a drive-thru experience with grief. We take our generous corporate offering of three days bereavement leave, if we're lucky enough to have it, and are expected to return to our daily lives with nary an insight into the fact that our life has been, in many cases, permanently changed.

Where do we put that grief? Where do we put those changes?

Where do we go?

Like Held Opelt, I went out searching and am fortunate that over the years I learned how to be healthier, more present, to develop friendships, and I learned something resembling a sort of awkward self-care.

I learned how to cope. I learned how to grieve.

I learned how to be present for others and how to invite others into being present for me.

These are many of the things that Held Opelt discovers that come to life in the pages of "A Hole in the World," as she explores a wide variety of rituals such as the Victorian tradition of post-mortem photographs, the Irish tradition of Keening, the Jewish tradition of sitting Shiva (one of my favorites among grief rituals), the tradition of mourning clothing, and others. With each ritual, Held Opelt delves into the ritual's history and culture while also slowly, step-by-step tiptoeing toward processing her own pain and finding a framework that makes sense for her.

That's the power of "A Hole in the World." It's one woman sharing her own journey with intelligence, insight, and much wisdom as she builds a framework for her own grief and chooses to invite others into the journey.

"A Hole in the World" isn't a miracle publication. You won't finish it and think to yourself "Okay, I'm done now." Instead, it's a nurturing companion that serves as a literary reminder that there is hope and that our grief does matter.

As I was reading "A Hole in the World," at one point I said to myself "If we're all made in the image of God, how could our loss not matter?"

And then I may have cried a bit. I'm just saying.

I appreciated Held Opelt's extensive research and her emotional honesty. I appreciated her spiritual reflection and I also appreciated that "A Hole in the World" carries with it a fairly diverse collection of Christian voices within its pages from Lisa Sharon Harper to John Piper and others.

There's simply so much to love here and, perhaps, that's the entire point. As we give ourselves to healthier ways to grieve, this grieving turns into connection which turns into an ability to love, believe, and heal.

Destined to be one of my favorite books for years to come, "A Hole in the World" is a beacon of hope for those who wander in the darkness of loss and grief. While "A Hole in the World" can't and doesn't pretend to try to take away the pain, it's an emotionally and intellectually informed work of hope that reminds us we need not grieve alone.

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic