What is the truth value of mourning? That is, what does mourning tell us about the truth? Mourning is one of the most powerful and universal emotions. It is such a basic, pre-reflective, and pervasive response to the loss of a loved one that it appears to be part of the hard wiring of human nature—regardless of whether one believes that evolution, God, or some combination or the two installed the cables. It surely must say something significant about what it means to be human.
We typically mourn over persons, not things. The Israelites sat down by the rivers of Babylon and wept over the destruction of Jerusalem (Psalm 137:1), but they were mourning the loss of their community, the body of people that God had called together at Mt. Sinai, not bricks and stones. Rachel, who refused to be consoled “because her children are no more,” is rightly counted as the Bible’s most striking exemplar of mourning (Jeremiah 31:15).
The example of Rachel shows us that mourning is a special kind of sorrow, unique in its terribleness. We can feel acute sadness at the loss of neighbors, acquaintances, even those who have died on the other side of the world, but we mourn those with whom we share a special bond. Mourning is made possible by our capacity to be so closely connected to others that we can hardly distinguish where our life begins and their life ends.
Perhaps that is why mourning is so visceral, immediate, and instinctive—it blurs the boundaries of spiritual, mental, and raw physical pain. Mourning is not regret. Regret has a cooler emotional tone. Regret is cognizant, deliberate, and imaginative. Regret leads us to reflect on what we can learn from past mistakes and missed opportunities, while mourning is simply a test of faith. Those in deep mourning can appear to be in a state of shock, as if they have been physically assaulted. They have. They have had a part of themselves removed and lost forever.
As a general rule, then, we mourn those who are so close to us as to be almost a part of our bodies. Pregnancy is the most explicit experience of this closeness, which makes losing a baby in the womb the paradigmatic occasion for mourning. Expecting a child is such an intensely joyful experience that we often call it just that—expecting. That simple word is enough to evoke the horizon of a future full of meaningful possibilities. Losing a baby, at any stage in the pregnancy, strikes at the emotional foundations of our very humanity. In a flash, what was sheer exuberant expectation becomes unspeakable grief. The magnitude of the loss is made even greater by its intimacy. Because the unborn baby had yet to be witnessed and acknowledged by a wider public, the immediate family’s heartache can be intensely private and lonely.
Our ability to mourn for a lost fetus is surely one of the strongest arguments against the practice of abortion. Abortion rights advocates locate the morality of the killing of the fetus in the intentionality of the woman’s decision. If the woman contracts for an abortion because she has freely decided she wants this medical procedure, then it is morally good (or at least morally permissible). If the woman kills her fetus by taking drugs, or if someone else kills her fetus by abusing her, then the death of the fetus is morally wrong. Mourning demonstrates just how narrow and eccentric this moral criterion is. Plenty of studies document how abortion does not avoid the problem of mourning. Indeed, abortion compounds mourning, because now the woman who chooses it must also deal with the fact that her loss is the product of her own free will. She has to live with mourning wrapped in regret. As a test of faith, mourning can be healed by the time it takes for faith to persevere, but when mourning becomes intermingled with regret, it can linger in destructive and overwhelming ways.
Mourning is built into human nature, in the end, because the loss of any human life is a diminution of what all humans share, and nobody shares humanity with another as intimately as a woman with a baby in her womb. If we mourn persons, not things, and we mourn those persons who are part of us and yet have their separate identity, then mourning makes a conclusive case for the universal evil of abortion. Mourning is nature’s way of conferring infinite value onto the unborn as well as the born. Abortionists try to persuade us that our hearts are wrong, that
mourning is something we can control, and that it does not say anything universally valid about the value of human life. While it is probably true that effective arguments against abortion should not be overly emotional, in the case of mourning, the argument from emotion is as rational as this debate can get.