“Call Me Bitter” Giving Space for our Hardest Feelings

May be an image of Leanne Friesen, eyeglasses and text that says 'Bitter'

I’m a pastor, so most Sundays of my life I preach a sermon, where I teach people about the Bible. This week I shared with my congregation about a woman named Naomi, who experienced great tragedy – and was pretty ticked off about it. 

Here’s a summary of the story. Naomi’s husband and her two sons died over a short time. After their deaths, Naomi decides to move back to her hometown, where she had not lived for over a decade. When she arrives home, the women of the town come out to meet her saying “Is this Naomi?” To this Naomi replies: “Don’t call me Naomi – Call me Mara.” Mara means bitter. 

I love this. 

Naomi’s name literally means pleasantness, and she is not feeling that anymore. I can picture her old childhood friends happily rushing to meet her, delighted to see her again. “Pleasantness!” they call out, “Is that you?” Naomi can hardly hear the word, it seems. Pleasantness no longer works for her. Bitter? Yeah, that works better. Call me that. 

If you have ever grieved, my guess is that you will empathize wholeheartedly with Naomi. Burying someone we love changes us.  Like Naomi, you may have also felt a name change was in order. You may have wanted to say “Call me Sad,” or “Call me Angry” or “Call me Destroyed.” They all work. 

I love that Naomi names what she feels. I love this honest depiction of grief. I love Naomi. She is one of my grief heros. 

Which is why it really irritated me when I discovered that a whole lot of people who teach about this story turn Naomi into a grieving failure. Over and over, as I prepared my sermon, I read blogs and articles and sermons with the same message: “Don’t be like Naomi! DON’T CHOOSE BITTERNESS! 

It seemed like everyone wanted to focus on this one idea: In her grief, Naomi picked bitterness over contentment. And this was a bad thing.

One preacher, referring to another character in the Bible, even said: “Job lost ten children and he said “Yet I will trust in God!” Naomi lost two children and she says: “I’m bitter.” 

(When I heard this, I confess that I literally yelled out loud: “Oh shut up.”) 

Listen, I’m not saying that we should walk around as crusty, bitter people. What I am saying is that Naomi is not a villain here. Naomi is grieving. Her entire family died. I think she’s entitled to a little bitterness! And, in that moment when her old friends greeted her, I don’t believe Naomi faced a choice between choosing bitterness or choosing contentment. I think the only choice she faced was between being honest and saying out loud she was bitter or lying and pretending she wasn’t.  

Naomi’s story isn’t one about choosing a certain kind of attitude. It is a picture of suffering. For those of us who are grieving, this is a woman we can understand. If being Naomi means being honest with people about how much we are hurting, I hope we can all say “Call me Naomi!” 

(Also, it should be said that God never seems too distressed at Naomi’s bitterness. The story ends with pretty clear evidence that God was at work to keep looking after Naomi, bitter or not).  

When I started reading all those well meaning “Don’t choose bitterness” posts, I wondered what message it sent to grieving people who would hear them. I heard an idea that is unfortunately too common: “Good” grieving people should “choose” to be happy. Despair? Anger? Bitterness? These feelings aren’t okay. In fact, if you embrace those, you may still have preachers declare that you’re doing grief wrong 3000 years from now!

But Naomi reminds us – sometimes grieving people are bitter. And sometimes grieving people need room to say that. 

You know what I picture when I think of that scene of Naomi returning home? I picture the women of that town crying with her. I picture them saying “Oh honey, we are so sorry.” I picture them wrapping their arms around Naomi and saying “Mara, we grieve with you.” 

(And if any of them happened to say “Oh don’t say THAT Naomi! You shouldn’t be bitter!” I hope that some wiser sister in the bunch gave her the stink eye until she caught on). 

Dear grieving hearts, there is room for your bitterness. Room for your sadness. Room for your rage. You can be Naomi and you can be Mara. Go ahead and say it.

I hope you’ll get the space you deserve. 

(Thanks for reading. If you’d like to receive updates on future posts, follow this page. For most posts on grieving, you can also follow me on Instagram at grieving.room).

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