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Gary Fabiano/Sipa Press/AP

An indecent grief

First lamentations, then comfort that strengthens more than soothes

Issue: "The Haiti quake," Feb. 13, 2010

Just off a transatlantic flight from covering the 1999 Izmit earthquake in Turkey-which killed over 17,000-I ordered coffee at Starbucks. I was dust-covered, unkempt, exhausted. I had come straight from the quake zone, watching all-night rescue efforts lit by generator-driven spotlights end in grief.

The barista set before me one of those really tall coffee concoctions, and I couldn't pick it up. The cartonboard cup with its creamy white cleanness assaulted my senses. It was an affront to the dust-laden, broken-up, shaken-down cityscape I'd inhabited the past week. Coming out of it-back to where rebar held to concrete, where buildings stood with glass intact, where china and stuffed animals stayed on their shelves and children slept in their own beds-felt like a betrayal. I stood frozen at the Starbucks counter and wept.

We Westerners excel at getting on with it, at binding up wounds and fixing what's broken, or paying others to do it for us. We do less well with pausing to grieve, feeling the pain long enough, letting the pain be pain and do its work.

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"Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands to Him for the lives of your children, who faint for hunger at the head of every street," lamented Jeremiah (Lamentations 2:19).

The list of Haiti's needs, while brutally long, can be named and numbered. So can and should its lamentations. A death toll from an island the size of Massachusetts to rival a tsunami that spanned an ocean and 14 nations. Ten thousand quake victims per day dumped without name or record into mass graves. Thousands beneath the rubble awaiting a rescue that did not come. Each is an individual sorrow and together an unfathomable calamity.

"Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!" (Jeremiah 9:1).

Jeremiah knew a "pain unceasing, an incurable wound, refusing to be healed." The prophet himself lived a life full of indecent grief, a persistent heartbreak the men of Judah found obscene, excessive. They derided him as the "weeping prophet," God forbade him to marry, and he died a captive in Egypt. Yet he wrote not from base self-pity but because he understood the risk: If we fail to see the depths of pain inflicted by disaster, we will fail to bind up the wounds properly. At the same time, the pain is a powerful reminder of our limits. We must not fail to see like Jeremiah that ultimately the wound is incurable and the pain unceasing. In this life all binding and curing is temporary.

So beware the man with quick answers: Pat Robertson dismissing the calamity as part of "a pact to the devil"; Rush Limbaugh declaring that we gave already. Beware the man with wrong answers: Max Beauvoir, Haiti's high priest of voodoo, telling Haitians that the quake's unexpected deaths only disrupted the normally peaceful transition from one life to the next. "We believe that everyone lives 16 times-eight times we live as men, and eight times as women. And the purpose of life is to gather all kinds of experiences," said Beauvoir. Or the team of Scientologists, who went from makeshift shelter to makeshift shelter claiming to heal through touch. "When you get a sudden shock to a part of your body the energy gets stuck, so we reestablish communication within the body by touching people through their clothes, and asking people to feel the touch," said one volunteer.

Comfort that treats the bereaved as pets or as losers is no comfort. Comfort designed less to empower than to ease is short-lived. The old English defined comfort as "strengthening, encouraging, inciting, aiding" while the Americans refined it to "soothe in a time of distress" (see Oxford English vs. American Heritage dictionaries). Haitians, made in the image of God and like His Son sorrowful even to death, need strengthening comfort, the kind that fathoms both the depth of the loss and the length of the work ahead.

Haitians amid the rubble have a better sense of this. "Dye pi fo," some sang out from the shelters. "God is stronger."
If you have a question or comment for Mindy Belz, send it to mbelz@worldmag.com.

Related coverage:


'Still in shock' | Haiti is hit by a massive earthquake followed by aftershocks, with an epicenter near the capital, Port-au-Prince | Mindy Belz and Jamie Dean | Jan. 12, 2010
Helping Haiti | WORLD provides a list of relief organizations accepting donations to assist earthquake victims in Haiti | The Editors | Jan. 13, 2010
Search and rescue | U.S. disaster experts, the U.S. military, and private relief groups head to earthquake-devastated Haiti | Mindy Belz | Jan. 13, 2010
In the dark | Haitian-Americans hope to contact loved ones and quickly send aid back home to family and friends | Alisa Harris | Jan. 13, 2010Weeping and waiting | Haitian earthquake victims await help, but obstacles slow relief efforts | Jamie Dean | Jan. 14, 2010Desperation | Too many Haitians are in a holding pattern awaiting aid, as relief organizations try to make progress | Jamie Dean | Jan. 15, 2010
Long night | With tens of thousands of casualties, Haitians weep and wait for morning | Jamie Dean | Jan. 15, 2010
Deliverance | A group of orphans arrive safely in Pittsburgh while relief organizations report progress in Haiti | Mindy Belz | Jan. 19, 2010Crying for help | Hard-pressed Haitians seek assistance as aid groups face logistical challenges | Jamie Dean | Jan. 21, 2010Leaving Port | Beyond the capital city are rural communities equally devastated by the quake and in need of help | Jamie Dean | Jan. 22, 2010The new normal | As life and death continue their morbid mingling, relief groups forge ahead to help | Jamie Dean | Jan. 22, 2010
Finding home | Now that search-and-rescue efforts have been called off, attention turns to providing shelter for survivors | Jamie Dean | Jan. 23, 2010
Chaotic aid | Relief groups attempt to help Haitians despite murky rules, government interference, and the lack of a cohesive plan | Jamie Dean | Jan. 28, 2010
Aftershock | Caregivers predict a second wave of death, as Haitians find moments of deliverance amid days of devastation from one of the modern world's worst natural disasters | Jamie Dean | Jan. 29, 2010
Homecoming | For Haitians orphaned before the quake, it means leaving home and starting over | Alisa Harris | Jan. 29, 2010
Crisis giving | Instant need calls for long-term strategy | Rusty Leonard | Jan. 29, 2010
Hope for Haiti? (audio file) | Hear WORLD news editor Jamie Dean discuss her visit to the earthquake-ravaged country | Nick Eicher | Feb. 1, 2010
Despair and salvation | While the UN grapples with unruly crowds, The Salvation Army peacefully distributes food | Jamie Dean | Feb. 2, 2010
Crossing lines | Failing to heed sound advice, 10 Americans now find themselves facing kidnapping charges in Haiti | Jamie Dean | Feb. 4, 2010
Haiti's plight (audio file) | A discussion of the country's days of devastation and moments of deliverance | Jamie Dean | Feb. 5, 2010
Stress management | Helping Haitians recover takes zeal-with wisdom | Jamie Dean | Feb. 12, 2010
Taking charge | In quake aftermath, build new cities, says Haitian ambassador (and Bible translator) Raymond Joseph | Mindy Belz | Feb. 12, 2010
Houses of God | Grand-Goave, Haiti | The Editors | Feb. 12, 2010
Living water | Water Missions International offers long-term solutions for clean, drinkable water | Angela Lu | Feb. 13, 2010
Building blocks | While Christian Aid Ministries provides for the immediate needs of quake victims, it looks ahead to helping the country rebuild | Angela Lu | Feb. 16, 2010
Close quarters | ActionAid helps homeless Haitians deal with sanitation and security issues at camps set up in Port-au-Prince | Angela Lu | Feb. 23, 2010
Hardest hit | With nearly half a million orphaned children before the quake, Haiti's challenge to parent them just got bigger | Jamie Dean | Feb. 26, 2010
The search for miracles | Port-au-Prince is a city desperately seeking turnaround-and that's before the earthquake | Jamie Dean | March 12, 2010
Hope in the darkness | World Hope International offers Haitians practical assistance and spiritual guidance | Angela Lu | March 24, 2010
Night crawlers | A new disaster threatens defenseless women and children in Haitian tent cities: rape | Jamie Dean | March 25, 2010
Homecoming | Missionary Patrick Lataillade, who nearly died in the quake, returned to help Haitians this week | Angela Lu | March 27, 2010
Hashing out Haiti | As the UN makes recovery plans, Haitians struggle for the basic necessities for survival | Jamie Dean | March 31, 2010

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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