Grief, Loss, And The “Replacement” Of Abel

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My mom and I love watching sad movies together, and Steel Magnolias is one of our favorites. Toward the end of the movie, Sally Fields gives one of the most heartbreaking and powerful speeches about the loss of her daughter. It brings us to heavy tears every time. As I read the text for today, I found a story about a woman processing loss. And it seemed highly important to address what her grief means for us.

We left off yesterday with a recap that led us through most of Genesis 4. In the last verses of Genesis 4, we learn that Eve births Seth. Seth means “to place,” and in this story Seth is “placed” in for Abel, meaning that in this context the word is really, “to replace.” Eve clarifies this meaning for us by stating, “God has given me another child in place of Abel, whom Cain killed” (v. 25).

We must be precise with our reading here: the text is not commanding us to think of new children as replacements to any who we have lost. It simply tells us that Eve specifically considered Seth as a compensation after she lost Abel. 

If you read my post on The Calling of Genesis 3, you’ll remember the distinction between reading the text as descriptive or as prescriptive. That principle applies here as well. We should read these verses as a description of how Eve processed the loss of her son, because if we read them as a prescription for how we should process grief, the outcomes can become pretty ugly.

For example, I have done a lot of pastoral care and grief work with people who experience perinatal loss, and one of the sayings that I have heard family and friends tell the parents is, “You’re still young enough to have another.”

I can’t say this firmly enough: that’s not helpful. If we’re ever with someone who’s facing and processing loss, we must refrain from making these appeasing statements. I know that grief can feel uncomfortable, and out of a very genuine place in our hearts we want to say something to make the others feel better. But please remember: most often silence is more helpful than words in these situations. And if we feel we must say something, we should affirm how much sadness we feel along with them.

These two verses in Genesis 4 give us a picture of Eve, who received Seth as a blessing after having endured great loss, arguably of both sons, since Cain was sent out from God’s presence to a new land as well. She is hurting and pained, and the gift of birthing Seth leads her to praise God for giving her another child in Abel’s place.

Eve came up with that on her own, and from what we can tell it brought her comfort and peace. I worked with many people who came up with incredible ways of framing their loss that made sense to them, that calmed their hearts, and that gave them hope for the future. We can’t create it for them, though. It is most often in our sitting quietly with others that they are able to find ways to grieve and to hope again.

Grief isn’t foreign to any of us — we have all experienced loss in one form or another. The greatest takeaway from how Eve processes the loss of Abel is that we have freedom to create the meaning that brings us the most peace. And in grieving and mourning, we find that perhaps there is still hope after despair, still peace after mourning, and still love after loss. And through bravery and courage, may we offer those gifts to one another in our greatest times of need.

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