Grieving Well with Amanda Held Opelt
Amanda Held Opelt is a songwriter, speaker, and writer based in Boone, North Carolina. Steeped in beauty, her work stands at the intersection of faith, grief, healing, creativity, and belonging. Amanda is the author of, A Hole in the World: Finding Hope in Rituals of Grief and Healing, which traces the history of death rituals – twelve in total, ranging from keening to telling the bees to tolling the bell to funeral games – and excavates her personal experience with grief. In this deeply human exploration of bereavement, Amanda helps the reader confront the realities of loss, create structure and space for sorrow, and reflect upon the ways we can better hold grief together.
The wisdom of A Hole in the World was born out of excruciating loss for Amanda. In the same season of life, she endured the sudden and unexpected death of her sister, the author Rachel Held Evans, and three miscarriages. Amanda shares that she felt “hoodwinked” by grief, unprepared to navigate and live with it. The questions which followed – how do I grieve well, why was I so unprepared, how do I live with loss – shape her book and work today.
In our time together, Amanda considers the evolution of her work as an artist and advocate and the texture of her journey as a grieving person. We discuss what surprised her most about the rituals she studied, how rituals function within communal understanding, and how we can create more space for each other to be fully human in the midst of grief.
How would you describe the landscape of your childhood, and how did this context prepare you for the work you’re doing now?
My sister, Rachel, used to say her most disqualifying characteristic as a memoirist was a happy childhood. It really is true. We had about as idyllic, beautiful, trauma-free of a childhood as you could imagine. We both ended up becoming writers, and I wonder, “how did that happen?”
We come from a long line of teachers. Both my parents are teachers – my mom’s a fourth-grade teacher, and my dad’s a theology professor. My grandmother on my mom’s side was a teacher. My great-grandmother and great-grandfather were teachers in a two-room schoolhouse, here, in Appalachia. A long line of communicators and storytellers. Storytelling is characteristic of most Appalachian people, and some of those stories are tall tales, not exactly rooted in reality. I was surrounded by storytelling my whole life, which prepared me to communicate about my experiences and the depth of feeling those experiences evoked.
The beauty, the ease, the goodness of my childhood led me to experience such shock when I did experience grief and hardship, though. I was 18 or 19 before I went to my first funeral. Living a privileged life, you think it’s going to continue like that forever. While I wouldn’t trade my good childhood for anything, it made adjusting to a life of grief more jarring. I felt I needed a book about how to process grief, which led me to write A Hole in the World.
What drew you to social work and humanitarianism? Was there an experience which inspired you to pursue the intersection of this work?
That’s a really good question: how did my career come to be what it was? I was always drawn to international work. It’s the most evangelical of all evangelical stories. I went to Christian summer camp, where they told the story of David Livingstone and how he gave his all to share the gospel with the people of Africa. I was inspired. I went to India after college to be a missionary. There, I realized how ill-equipped I was. Seeing Indian Christians serving in community with other Indian Christians was the best part of my experience. It was shameful how much good could’ve been done with the money spent to get me there, to sit there and not speak Tamil. Throughout my high school career, I’d been thinking, “I’m going to do international work. I’m going to share the gospel with the nations,” in a puffed-up American way. I ultimately concluded that, if Indian Christians are the best ones to be ministering to other Indian people, then maybe I should be ministering to my neighbors.
I ended up doing social work, which was eye-opening. I realized what a privileged life I had and how much poverty, need, and lack of access to resources existed in my backyard. We were lower-middle class, but I was rich and privileged in connections, in relational support, educationally, and generationally. Seeing the gaps humbled me and helped me understand that, in terms of international work, the most effective way for Westerners to work in developing countries is to help fill in some of the gaps in expertise and partner with local folks to meet needs at a point of crisis. I had burned out as a social worker and learned a lot about burnout and resilience. I decided I wanted to help aid workers develop skills for resilience. I wasn’t a proper aid worker, but I served aid workers and managed staff care and chaplaincy programs for them.
How did you first discover the joys of songwriting and making music?
It happened naturally. My aunt is a phenomenal musician who plays every Appalachian instrument and recently won the North Carolina Heritage Award. She taught me how to play guitar and banjo. I was always an introvert and preferred to be alone. Creating and writing helped me process my experiences throughout high school and college. This has stayed with me, and I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by songwriters and musicians who have encouraged and challenged my craft.
In a similar vein, how has creating music helped you in your journey with grief?
I've heard it said that creating spaces where you can encounter your pain, in a judgment-free way, is one of the most important things you can do in grief. In modern Western society, we spend most of our time avoiding pain as much as we can, finding hacks for whatever makes us feel uncomfortable. I needed to create spaces to look my sadness square in the eye.
Songwriting has created a place where I can plumb the depths of what I'm feeling and wring it out. At the end, I have a song that I wrote about my experience forever. Returning to that song creates space for me to encounter my pain again.
In the book, you describe how grief is not just an experience of the mind and heart, but also a physiological experience. What has grief taught you about embodiment?
Like most Westerners, I inherited mind-body dualism from the Ancient Greeks. I’ve always felt that I am mentally and emotionally resilient. I taught resilience to aid workers for almost ten years. But I thought I could, in some way, outsmart grief, or my body’s experience of grief, or my body’s absorption of grief. I tried to for almost a year, but I couldn’t. My body broke down. I was having pain my doctors couldn’t explain and all kinds of random symptoms. I wasn't taking care of my body. I had been more focused on the mind's experience of grief, the heart's experience of grief, and forgotten that you experience grief as a whole person. The mind and body are inextricably linked.
You describe the unique grief of miscarriage so poignantly, “I’d lost two other babies – had experienced the halting of a heartbeat within my womb. I knew what it was to carry death in my body, to say goodbye to someone who was a part of me but whom I never really knew.” I think this experience is so common, but yet still taboo and hidden. How do you wish societal, or perhaps simply social, responses to the grief of miscarriage were different?
It’s so challenging, right? This is such a hot button topic in society, one which raises difficult questions. Is it even a person you’re mourning? Is it the potential for life? Does it only matter if it matters to the mother, if the mother desires it for her future? We lack a common language to talk about what early pregnancy even is. I understand that. I’m a social worker, but I also grew up in evangelical circles. It’s a battle that wages in my own head when I reflect on that season of life. I wonder if we can even get on the same page about what life is. That’s why you can feel a little silly, sometimes, grieving when you miscarry. You think, “Well, there may be people who think this isn’t legitimate pain.” We’re so combative with one another about early pregnancy. We can’t talk about it from a grief and loss perspective without those feelings of angst emerging.
If anything, I wish we all spoke more openly about it. I didn’t know how common it was until I began doing research. I thought, “Oh, my body is broken. My body isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing.” I felt cheated by my body, hoodwinked even. There’s a lot of talk in Christian and evangelical circles about motherhood being the highest calling, what you were designed to do as a woman. I experienced a year or two of infertility before my miscarriage. I felt, though it sounds silly now, “Am I not reaching the fullness of who God created me to be if I can’t be a mother, if I can’t sustain life?” I wish we didn't make women feel like their purpose is to be a wife and mother, or that being a wife and mother is the essence of femininity and womanhood.
I also wish we talked about miscarriage as a shared loss, shared grief, between men and women. It’s something only women can truly understand at the embodiment level, but the loss had a huge impact on my husband as well. As far as I know, there’s only one book on infertility and miscarriage written for men. It left the burden on me to say, “This is my grief. This is my loss.” My husband, though, was really good to interrupt that idea, and say, “No, we share this together. I’m grieving like you are, even though we’re experiencing it in different ways.”
In your research on the lost rituals of grief and death, what surprised you the most?
The number of grief rituals rooted in superstition surprised me. The world of medicine, illness, and death has been so mysterious for so long. The ability for a common person to have an autopsy or cause of death was rare and unusual. The mystery surrounding death brought a fear of not knowing when you would meet your own end. For example, “covering the mirrors”: If you don’t cover the mirrors in the house of mourning and I see my reflection, then I’ll be the next person to die. Or “telling the bees”: If I don't tell the bees, then they’re going to die too. They're going to fly away. The desire to exercise agency, in some way, over death was really interesting to me. I didn’t write about that as much in the book, but it’s been something I’ve been thinking a lot about in the six months since I submitted the book.
So many of these rituals seem to be a way of confronting the mystery of death and dealing with the fear that comes with it. We still experience fear when someone around us dies, but we have this illusion of control, in modern Western society, that we can somehow manage our outcomes. We’re all mortal. We’re all going to die. And there are still so many medical mysteries in our world. There’s so much that we don’t know, that we can’t control, and about death and illness we don’t understand. In the past, communities had rituals which reflected that vulnerability.
I was surprised how vulnerable death made me feel, how much it humbled me, how caught off guard I felt. I learned that it’s okay to feel scared because life is scary. You have permission to feel that way.
I think it's so interesting you ended up writing the book during the pandemic and diving into these rituals during such a disorienting time, when we were collectively experiencing deep vulnerability and fear. What do you make of the connection between community, grieving, and healing?
What makes something a proper ritual, to me, is communal understanding of the meaning beneath the practice. We can use the word, “ritual,” flippantly, to describe my “morning coffee ritual” or my “skincare ritual.” Those are habits. I don’t know that you can do a ritual outside of a community or at least outside of a communal understanding. The communal affirmation of pain and the disorientation of grief remind you that you’re not crazy and you’re not alone.
Practicing grief rituals in community teaches the next generation to confront death and to be prepared for life’s catastrophes. In the past, children were involved in death rituals. The body would be displayed in the home where the children were. Children would participate in wake games or keening. Children would help tell the bees. We try to protect children from death now because we don't want to frighten them or make them feel afraid or insecure, but I think that does a disservice to them in their adulthood.
I was in my mid-30s before I experienced earth-shattering grief, and, like I said, I felt hoodwinked by it. If I had been exposed to more sorrow or grief in my childhood, I think it wouldn't have been quite as disorienting.
As you write, grief is profound, brutal, and shocking – descending into “madness” is appropriate. And yet, the evolution of our rituals around death favor containment and politeness. How can we make more room for each other to be fully human in the midst of grief?
That’s a really good question. I don't know how we can do that better, other than just by modeling it. We need people who are willing to be fully themselves, and once others see that, maybe they’ll feel more of a sense of permission.
The ritual of keening made such an impression on me. It was the first one I studied and sent me on this journey. It seemed like an intentional space to fall apart. It created a time for everyone to come together and act a little crazy, wail like banshees. That’s actually where the Irish myth of the banshee came from. They believed banshees to be the souls of dead keeners. These crazy women would come and give people permission to act like a wild person in grief. I wish it was more appropriate to cry at funerals. If I were just to wail and fall apart at a funeral, people would say, “Well, she’s not okay. She’s not handling this very well.” But I think the Irish would say, “No, no. She’s the only normal one in the room. We all feel this way inside.”
You write about the profound loss of your sister, Rachel. Would you like to share anything about her or your love for her and the life you shared together here?
I always want people to know that she was who she was. We live in a world with a lot of Christian celebrities. We follow influences online. We’ve created this kind of currency out of online presence and online personas. She really had no persona, in the sense that she was truly authentically herself. She really wasn't trying to sell anything. She just wanted to connect with other people who were struggling with the same things she was struggling with. That's why she went online and started writing.
People always talk about how kind, how funny and curious and goodhearted, she was. All of that is true. She wasn’t a different person behind closed doors. It wasn’t an act she put on to sell books or conference tickets. She really was that person. The person people encountered in those conferences or book signing lines or online was the person I experienced at home around the dinner table.
The root of the word integrity is “integer,” meaning one. She was one person, and that type of integrity is hard to find these days. It is something we should all seek to emulate. There are many things about her we should emulate, but I think that’s one of the biggest ones.
You discuss how grief is not linear; that we’re never finished grieving. Is there a ritual or a practice you’re relying upon in this season of grief?
As I mentioned, creating spaces for me to encounter my pain is very important. When I’m having a particularly “griefy” day, I feel extra tired and somewhat short-tempered. I know it’s because something has come up that reminded me of Rachel or of a miscarriage. Not that I need reminding because it’s always with me, but something has happened which took me back to a space of deep grief. Maybe it’s hearing about someone else who lost a sibling or seeing something on the news about a hospital. Memories rush back, and I feel myself physiologically slipping. On days like that, I know I need to create time, whether it’s just five minutes and often it is because I have small kids, or an hour to just be honest with myself, to acknowledge, “I’m having a hard time with the loss today.” This happens a lot, on my parents’ birthdays or my parents’ anniversary, or if one of my parents has a doctor appointment. I get really griefy because I know Rachel's not there to wish them a “happy birthday.” Rachel's not there to ask how the doctor's appointment was.
If I know it’s going to be a tough day for me, I know I need to do something to take care of my body. As we discussed, we experience grief in a holistic way. I try to eat healthy food, take a walk, make sure I get extra sleep that night if I can go to bed early. I try to read other people’s words about grief, poetry, and music. I have a few friends that have written really beautiful songs about grief and loss. I listen to those songs and have a really good cry. This kind of caretaking feels important to me.
It’s hard to find communal ritualistic practices that I can do with others to help me process my grief. But I'm really fortunate to go to a church that makes space for lament nearly every Sunday. It’s more than just the legalistic practice of getting up and going to church on Sunday morning when you'd rather be eating pancakes at home in your PJs. I go because I’m going to be with other people who believe what I believe, who hold on to the same hope that I hold onto, and who will space for the people in the room who are grieving, who are struggling with a loss or struggling with uncertainty.
If one of our readers finds herself in the thick wilderness of grief, what would you most want her to know?
Don't rush the silver lining. Don't rush the redemption. It's okay to acknowledge, “This is awful. This is bad, and I don’t see a higher purpose to it. I don't even see the light at the end of the tunnel yet.” Don’t rush the happy ending. Be patient with yourself. You’re never going to get over grief. You’ve been reborn in a new life. You’re now living the life of a griever. You’ll probably always grieve, but you’ll develop the strength to carry this new burden. There will come a day when you can experience joy again and maybe even more fully because you've known the fullness of pain.
Where do you find refuge these days?
When you are a griever, it is easy to think of the world as a dark and painful place without a lot of beauty. To me, the most powerful act of resistance against death and sorrow is to savor the beauty in the world and the beauty in life. I’m really fortunate to live in a place surrounded by God-given beauty. Nobody built these mountains; they were given to us as a sheer act of grace on God's part. To be surrounded by a beauty I didn't earn or didn't make on my own of my own strength and feeling enclosed by that grace has helped me a lot on that healing journey. I spend a lot of time outside hiking in the sanctuary of beauty, of the forest and river and mountains. I don’t know how I would have gotten through the last five years without that grace in my life. I’m really grateful for it.
Is there anything else you’d like to share or perhaps raise a question you wish I’d asked?
Someone asked me the other day, “What has surprised me since releasing the book?” I'm not surprised that grievers have reached out to me to say, “The book meant so much to me. Thank you.” My deepest wish for the book is that non-grievers will read it. I know what it’s like to not have experienced grief and think, “I’m not going to read a book about grief. Why would I want to be in a bad mood for the rest of the day? Why would I want to feel sad?”
But I wish, I wish, I wish that I had read more grief books before I experienced it. My prayer for the book is that people who aren’t grieving would also pick it up and learn how to be present with their friends who are grieving and to prepare for grief in the future because you will experience it. Everyone you love is mortal, and I pray that more people pay attention to it beforehand instead of scrambling when it happens to you.
Featured photograph by Sarah DeShields of Enowen Photography.
Sarah James is the editor-in-chief and founder of Clerestory Magazine. A graduate of Yale and Middlebury, Sarah is a biracial South Indian-American woman of color and a writer. You can find her work elsewhere in The Porch, Darling, and Relevant, among others, or on her website.Discover more from Sarah James.