Psalm 88 is a prayer from a point of utter dejection. The woman or man speaking feels trapped, as if dead on the inside. They feel no more alive than the person they see being buried in the grave. They feel trapped by their pain and loss, perhaps numbed from trauma.
There have been very few times I felt like that, like one sitting on the edge of falling into the deepest night, with no hope from rising.
Yet I’ve also seen it more than I’d like in the eyes and stories of those who’ve experienced abuse or trauma, people sharing with me how it was like the light of the sun was extinguished for them and their loss or traumatic experience made them feel hollow inside, like a shell of a person.
This Psalm shows us this experience, though it feels utterly isolating and unique, is not new. If you are feeling so traumatized, alone, dejected, or depressed, God inspired others to write out prayers from that same point of view. Someone thousands of years before felt a very similar numbness and despair, and enough people could resonate with it that it was put in your Bible. So know though you may feel alone you are not.
I think it is important to note the Psalmist does not end in hope. Often when people are in this experience of disorientation and loss our temptation as friends and family is to push them out of it, to have them count their blessings, to do something to get them out of it. But as anyone who has been through such a time can tell you, it is not as simple as that. There is a point you are able to begin to do that, as healing comes. But there is a point that all you can do is sit in dust and ashes and weep; and sometimes even that is too much. To try to push someone out of their grief and pain before they are ready can be hurtful to them, deeping their experience of isolation and rejection. We need to be patient and present with people where they are, accepting them taking their own pace, acknowledging that they are worthy of our love and companionship in their deep darkness. When we face this darkness in our own lives, we also must be patient realizing it is not time for self-judgment or condemnation. We might want to say “you should already be past this” but we each heal in our own time.
The hope I see in this passage is three-fold.
First it does paint a way forward. In such suffering, we must accept ourselves and brokenness, our disorientation, without judgment. That such an experience is in Scripture suggests that even in that moment of seeming god-forsakenness and meaningless pain, we are not alone. God is all about us, even though unseen due to the all-enfolding darkness as thick as wool hanging out us. We need not be pushed to pretend we feel or see it when in that moment, but the presence of this Psalm in Scripture tells us that, which means we can know that the pain is not the only word. As we go through our process of healing, a sense of meaning or life-giving wisdom can grow from such a dark place. It is not a sign we are irreparably broken even though it may feel that way.
This path forward is shown, secondly, through the person speaking and writing this prayer. Though every temptation may be to isolate, and they may feel totally estranged from all about them even in a big crowd, this Psalmist does reach out – to God, and to the praying, worshipping community of which she or he is a part. Those who have gone through such dark times know this is no easy thing, but a heroic act of courage on the Psalmist’s part.
A part of what this Psalm teaches us is that even in the experience of life-numbing trauma and heart-stopping loss, we are not meant to go it alone. It will take courage to reach out and not all can stand with you during your pain, but it is worth it to reach out – to God through prayer, ritual, journaling, meditation, hymns, church. But just as importantly, since in your numbness and loss it may still feel you are hitting a ceiling to the heavens, reach out to others. Find friends and family to talk to, or just be with rather than being alone. Reach out to people at your church, particularly your pastors, deacons, or parish nurse. Reach out to support groups for those facing your trauma or loss. Reach out to trained counselors who can help you learn the steps to navigate your journey. And even use writing, music, art, poetry, blogging, to express privately your own pain.
Finally, remember you are not alone. As I mentioned, the fact this Psalm is in Scripture is an acknowledging that even in these moments where God cannot be seen or felt due to the depth of our pain, God is present though hidden by darkness. The Christian Gospel adds a level to this, by teaching us in the apostle’s creed that Jesus “descended to hell”. This means whatever hellish heartache we face, we can know Jesus is already somehow mystically present even if, by definition, each hell we face is that place in which God feels absent and we feel forsaken.