Ruth and Naomi - a case study in grief

The story of Naomi and Ruth is generally considered to be one of the most beautiful and best constructed stories in the Bible. But there is one aspect of the story that I have never found in any Biblical commentary, that is, the way in which Naomi's progression through despair, anger and bitterness, depression, and finally virtual rebirth to new purpose and new life, admirably exemplifies what modern psychologists refer to as the "grief cycle".

First, let’s just ensure that we understand the full nature of Naomi’s loss. The death of her husband Elimelech, and two sons Mahlon and Kilion, was traumatic by any standards, but even more so for Naomi than it would be in our modern society. The key word here is “alone”. Naomi was left completely alone and without any support in her community… no inheritance (Elimelech’s property would go to his male relatives), no support network to provide for her, no children or grandchildren to look after her in old age. She would be utterly destitute and (to all appearances) without any prospect of redeeming the situation.

When we first encounter Naomi in chapter 1, she clearly displays the depths of her grief: “Don’t call me Naomi. Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. I went away full, but the LORD has brought me home empty. Why call me Naomi when the LORD has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?”  (Ruth 1:20-21 NLT)

We can tell a lot from this brief but intense outburst from Naomi, she is clearly…

  • Overwhelmed by the tragic circumstances she finds herself in.
  • Empty, drained of any purpose or hope for the future.
  • Bitter and resentful.
  • Angry with God for allowing such a tragedy to happen.

These are all such typical early responses to grief and loss, with initial emptiness and despair giving way to bitterness and anger against others and often against God, who is often seen as the ultimate cause. This extract from Naomi’s speech comes in the midst of her attempt to persuade Ruth and Orpah to leave her and return to their own home and family. Naomi is showing another equally common response to grief, a desire to be left to suffer alone and bear her grief in isolation and solitude. Orpah gave in to her mother-in-law’s request and kisses her goodbye, but Ruth refuses to return home and insists on staying with Naomi:

“Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!”  (Ruth 1:16-17 NLT)

So Ruth continues on with Naomi towards Bethlehem, and will provide a key contribution towards Naomi’s recovery. But let’s continue to follow Naomi’s grief cycle.

At the beginning of chapter 2, Ruth takes the initiative in going out to the harvest fields to glean:

One day Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, “Let me go out into the harvest fields to pick up the stalks of grain left behind by anyone who is kind enough to let me do it.” Naomi replied, “All right, my daughter, go ahead.” (Ruth 2:2 NLT)

It’s significant that Ruth here is the one doing the forward-thinking and taking responsibility for their welfare. Naomi seems now to be in the longest, generally most persistent stage of the grief cycle, coping with loneliness and depression, not looking forward or seeking to take any initiative either for herself or for Ruth.

But by the beginning of chapter 2 Naomi’s attitude has changed. Now it’s Naomi who is taking the initiative, thinking forward to Ruth’s future welfare, and hatching a plan to find Ruth a husband. This is a new Naomi, no longer wallowing in her bitterness and isolation, but showing a sense of hope for the future, and a caring and responsible attitude towards Ruth, her daughter-in-law. Ruth follows Naomi’s advice, and as a result becomes the wife of Boaz, and the mother of Naomi’s grand-son:

So Naomi has progressed through to the final stage of the cycle; a new life, new purpose, a new hope for the future, by God’s grace helping to nourish and bring up a child who will become the ancestor of King David.

 It should also be noted that Ruth behaved in every way as the perfect comforter to help Naomi through her grief experience.

Walter Wangerin, in Mourning into Dancing (Zondervan, 1992), lists the following as ideal qualities for someone caring for a loved one coping with grief and loss:

  1. Know the grief process but know the griever even more.
  2. Make peace with your own death and with death itself.
  3. Do not expect gratitude, meek obedience, rational behavior, or thanks – expect nothing for yourself.
  4. You are not expected to fix the mortal break but to companion the broken.
  5. Your presence is more important than any solution you might propose – stay with them, abide.

Ruth could not have matched these qualities any better. She committed herself absolutely to stay with Naomi, expecting nothing in return… not pushing her to “snap out of it”, not offering solutions, just abiding with her and letting her grief take its course.

Of course there is a much bigger, spiritual message to the story of Naomi and Ruth. It is not written as case study in grief. But the grief cycle is there loud and clear simply because the story is so true to real life. Naomi’s grief is everyone’s grief, and anyone who has gone through a time of trauma and loss can empathize with her feelings of bitterness, anger and depression, and rejoice at God’s grace lifting her up and giving her new purpose and hope.

But this also emphasizes for me the sacrificial nature of Ruth’s commitment, because when Ruth made her famous, “Where you go, I go” speech, Naomi was at the very bottom of the grief cycle – bitter, angry, full of resentment and self-pity, and surely not a very nice person to be around. Yet at this very point Ruth gives up everything she has to stay with Naomi and see things through to the end.

And that is a wonderful example of the sacrifice that God in Christ made for us, that while we were at our lowest, dead in trespasses and sins, Christ gave himself for us!

Dr. Brian Bull