Book Review: A Hole in the World by Amanda Held Opelt
A Hole in the World by Amanda Held Opelt

Allow me to introduce you to a new author who just published her first book: Amanda Held Opelt.

Amanda has a passion for helping people and has spent over 15 years working as a humanitarian in dangerous situations. She blogs about religion, grieving, and creativity. And now, she’s written a book.

Prior to the release of her book, I only knew Amanda Held Opelt as the younger sister of Rachel Held Evans. Rachel was a New York Times bestselling author (I reviewed one of her books here), a beloved speaker, and progressive theologian who co-founded the Evolving Faith conference and online community for people who don’t feel welcome or comfortable in traditional church.

During a season of tremendous personal loss including multiple miscarriages and the death of a beloved grandmother, Amanda was blindsided by the unexpected hospitalization of her big sister, Rachel, who died less than a month later. Just like that her only sibling was suddenly and forever gone.

Image features a photo of Rachel Held Evans and this quote from one of her books: "This is what God's kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there's always room for more."

When Rachel died, it was like a gut punch to everyone who knew her and many of us who only knew her work. She left behind a loving husband, a toddler, and a baby who had not yet turned one. Her family and friends rallied to honor her legacy, none more so than her younger sister and only sibling, Amanda, the author of the book I’m reviewing.

I watched Rachel’s funeral online. For me, I felt like I had to be there because Rachel’s work had really touched my life. Space was intentionally created so attendees—both virtual and in person—could mourn and question the loss. The heartbreak was palpable even online.

So. Much. Loss.

My mom told me that losing a sibling is one of the hardest losses she’s ever had to face because they did life together, always.

Amanda, the author of A Hole in the World: Finding Hope in Rituals of Grief and Healing, faced not only the loss of her big sister, but also the trauma of multiple miscarriages and the loss of a beloved grandmother within a relatively short period of time.

How does one mourn that much loss?

American culture is uniquely avoidant of emotional discomfort—especially exhibition of strong negative emotions—and typically allows only a few days or at most a couple weeks for us to mourn our losses and move on. For example, my husband’s employer—a global corporation—allows only three days for mourning the death of an immediate family member. After that, you’re expected to be back at work, focused on WORK.

All Norms Are Not Created Equal

Opelt’s work challenges this expectation and her research confirms that this “Western” norm is far from normal in other parts of the world today, not to mention throughout thousands of years of history.

Would it surprise you to learn that numerous cultures allow people much more time for the grieving process? That there are rituals specifically designed to help us authentically mourn—and stay in the sadness, because it’s okay to be sad and not “celebrate life” for a while?

The truth is you cannot think your way out of grief. You cannot perform your way through it. There is no wellness routine or therapist that can get rid of it for you. You cannot pray it away. You cannot numb your feelings forever or circumvent the sorrow and go straight to the redemption. Sometimes we have to allow grief to have its way with us for a while.

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A Hole in the World: Finding Hope in Rituals of Grief and Healing is not an indulgent memoir. It is a deeply researched and insightful book about grief rituals and how they can help us keep on living after tremendous loss.

Forgetting how to grieve

When did we forget how to grieve? The author’s quest for answers to this question led her to discover that many of the rituals used for hundreds (or thousands of years) to support the process of grieving—and retaining memory of their loved ones—have disappeared.

But why?

In this raw and fascinating exploration of bereavement, Opelt documents the history of human grief practices (primarily from Abrahamic religious traditions so as not to culturally appropriate) and how previous generations journeyed through difficult periods of suffering. Together. In Community.

Rituals actually help

Woven throughout recollections of the author’s memories and experiences, Opelt shares what she’s discovered in her research on twelve distinctly different grieving rituals, some of which are no longer practiced.

I believe wholeheartedly in the power of shared story. We need the guidance and wisdom gained by others who have gone before us on the journey of grief. We need solidarity, to feel like we are not alone, and we are not crazy. It was that conviction that led me to explore historic rituals of grief in the first place.”

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History of Grief Rituals

The author explores the how, when, where, who, and why of each ritual with no judgment or evaluation. Her research is based on pure curiosity, and her discoveries are both enlightening and intriguing. She describes:

  • the Irish tradition of wailing and how it serves to call those gathered into a communal grieving of the loss all in a safe space where there is no judgment;
  • the Victorian tradition of post-mortem photography to assist in remembering the person lost as they were since time and circumstance often change how we remember people;
  • the Jewish practice of “sitting shiva” where we can rest on the support of our community when God feels absent;
  • the tradition of wearing specific clothes (e.g., black dress or black suit) which signifies to others in the community that they are in mourning;
  • and, of course, the tradition of nutritious and/or comfort food brought by friends and neighbors to feed grieving families and friends.

The rituals are fascinating and purpose-full. They are practiced not to make things worse than they are, but to bring a sense of peace and reconciliation into the present. To help the mourning find their way from darkness to light—with no pressure to hurry up and get over it. As Opelt writes,

“To me, the work of grief is less about release and more about learning how to hold on in a way that is healthy and whole…Grief is learning to endure, to bear up under the beautiful burden of love.”

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Shared Rituals Ease Grieving

Grief rituals are shared only by the living. They are passed down from one generation to the next with great care, yet some have fallen out of favor or become impractical in today’s society.

In Opelt’s Afterword, she reminds the reader how and why certain rituals fell into disfavor and/or out of use. The reasons are both logical and compelling. As we come out of a global pandemic (we are coming out of it, right?) where more than 6.3 million people worldwide have died from the COVID-19 virus and its mutant offspring, it’s critical that we reflect on our own grief rituals and make a plan to keep the ones that we don’t want to lose.

“As we have seen, large scale catastrophic events sometimes create irreversible shifts in the way we grieve…Some rituals shift for good reasons. But some are lost without any thought toward tending to the emotional need that was beneath the practice. What rituals will this pandemic steal from us?”

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The book felt a little choppy in places; however, the overall theme of each chapter is clear. The research is solid, the insights profound. The book as a whole is a treasure for anyone in grief—even if your grief is the loss of a longtime friendship or the death of a dream. I am glad I read it. I learned a lot, and I’ve got a lot of tools to help me in my grief. Highly recommended.

Graphics & Photo credits: All photos licensed for use on this blog by Laura Zielke unless otherwise noted below.
Woman Standing Near Coffin photo by Pavel Danilyuk.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”