Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Community of Compassion

When someone we love dies, we are left with great structures that are now hollow of life, an avalanche of dear memories, and tatters of dreams for what might have been.

In our struggle to survive a death, we need a community to help us through grief. If left on our own, we will curl up in the corner until our hearts desiccated into walnuts. We need people to help us crack open grief’s nuts.

We need compassionate people. Yet most people do not know what to say to help those who are grieving, so you see the problem. People will send cards and well wishes in the first month, then go back to their busy lives. We need several groups of people to stay around after this.

The On-Call People
People who are always available, day or night

A friend of my wife’s parents lost his wife ahead of me. He let me know what I could expect in the months after my wife’s death. He calmed my panic when grief went on for longer than expected and I was worried that I wasn’t grieving right.

A couple I knew were dealing with brain cancer, yet they kept offering to do things with me until I finally accepted, and we began to share our parallel journeys. They told me I could call them at any time.

Some of my friends had lost a husband, a brother, or both parents. They kept encouraging me to talk about what grief was doing in me today.

Although my faith community didn’t know what to say for an out-of-order death, its members provided a foundation of encouragement, acceptance, and support.

Nature had long been a place of renewal. Now it became a sanctuary whenever grief at home became too much. The wilderness also reminded me that I was part of something greater than my life.

The Occasional People
Those who check in on us now and then

There were my friends, as well as friends of Evelyn, some that I barely knew, who brought food, sat down, and listened to me share. They collectively kept the river of grief flowing and slowly replaced grief with their compassion.

The Long Range People
After you’ve started piecing together your new life, figuring out how grief is going to be part of it

Online grief communities, like Refuge in Grief, encouraged me to explore grief with unflinching honesty, especially the raw experiences of the first year. Writers among them inspired me with ideas of how to write about grief in creative ways.

Rituals express what words cannot. I learned about Jewish rites for grief in the early days when I was searching for guidance. Now I’m meeting people of other faiths who share what their traditions do to help those who are grieving, especially Buddhism.

Not to be left out are those who contact me in response to something I’ve written about grief, to thank me, ask questions, and share their own insights and struggles.

As I thought about the people who helped me, I realized that most of them had suffered some serious loss of their own. They had learned that words would not take away the pain or dull the sharp blades of loss. They knew to listen and share insights from what had worked for them. The rest were simply people of great compassion, and knew that their presence would make it easier to bear the weight of grief.

When we have been broken by grief, we need to be with people who accept us in our brokenness.

It is amazing that there are so many people who are willing to care for those who are grieving, and who are waiting for us to give them the chance.

You have probably noticed that I’ve been writing quite a bit about the rawness of the early months because people who are just beginning to grieve are desperate to hear others express what they are feeling. I also write about the context of grief in our society, how grief is hidden away, how people don’t want to talk about death and grief because it scares them. I want grief to be accepted and its journey honored, as it was 100 years ago.

As I compiled the list of people who have helped me grief (and this is by no means an inclusive list), I realized that most of them have suffered some serious loss of their own. They knew that words would not take away the pain or dull the sharp blades of loss. They knew to listen and share insights from what had worked for them. Other people who did not know grief were simply people of great compassion, and understood that their presence would make it easier to bear the weight of grief.

It is amazing to me that there are so many people who are willing to care for those who are grieving. They have my forever, and undying, gratitude.

I know that grief will always be part of my life because I will always love and miss Evelyn. I also know that I am capable of loving others and enjoying life again.

(And yes, I do write about matters other than grief, like nature and spirituality. Check out my other blog – http://markliebenow.blogspot.com .)


  1. Interesting post. I was amazed and touched by all the support you've had. You're right especially when we're in the first stages of grief we long to know how others are feeling and how they deal with it. Journaling is very important too. I lost a son a little over four months ago. I thought I comprehended the pain that fills this earth, but until I started searching the web for relief of my own, I really didn't know the amount and the intensity of anguish that's all around us.

  2. You know, Kathleen, in the first two years of grief, I felt so alone. And while I had many compassionate friends who wanted to do something, not that many knew what to say. They did not have stories of their own suffering to share. Yet I knew they were there if I needed them to listen. I'm so sorry that you lost your son. I can't imagine the heartache of losing a child. And four months is so recent. I was a mess at that point. My wife died in 2001, and I've been learning and writing about grief since then. I also did not know the amount of personal suffering going on around me until I joined the Refuge in Grief community last August. So many different kinds of grief! I don't know if this particular post will help many people, which is what I want this blog to do. But I wanted people to know that if they keep sharing and keep looking, that they will find people who understand and will support them as they journey through grief. It's a lot easier to find people and resources today than it was a decade ago.

  3. Did you really receive all this support? Amazing. I had the beginning bit but I must say that there is virtually no support or concern left (at 3 years). This, however, is the time when I would most like to talk about Jonathan. I agree there is no honoring of death. I live in Italy and even in such a Catholic society there is a great fear. I really sense this fear.

    1. Three years into grief. Yes, other people have gone back to their lives, figuring we'll be okay now. When I started out grieving, I expected the bulk of the onslaught to be over in 1 month, and I think almost everyone else expected this, too. Since then I've learned, and I continue to learn, how long grief is a presence every day, and when it fades to now and then, it still pops up unexpectedly on its own or in response to a specific song or food. I hope that now, a decade plus later, most people are clear that grief is going to last longer than a month. At least I hope they do, even those who haven't lost someone. Now we need to educate everyone that grief still impacts us for years. And at three years, when you're ready to talk about Jonathan and remember everything with some of the goodness those experiences hold, it is difficult to find people who want to listen. From my reading, it seems that honoring the dead is done better in Asian cultures, with household shrines that maintain communication with the deceased, and yearly observances for all who have died, which I think is called the Bon festival. Fear of death. As if it's waiting for us to make a mistake. Even to mention "death" makes some people uneasy, as if calling it by name calls it near.

    2. So tell me something about Jonathan.

  4. Hi Mark, I found you through the grief writing fb page. 11 months ago my younger sister passed away suddenly, 4 months into that I had a bad break up which was equally unexpected I was doing OK and coping until the April 29 when I got rejected from yet another job interview, not to mention Prince died that day also. I was already in a state of loss because of being unemployed again and I had or chosen to give up my apartment. I was told I'm strong and I am I have beaten some serious odds. I've had some accomplishments this year but the fear and anxiety feels like it grips me and hard to escape. I think such negative thoughts but I keep in mind that we have a close family and my life is no where near as bad as others.I'm tired of having to constantly adjust and deal with a new normal. I'm tired of doing things I've never done before like running back and forth to doctor because I want to make sure I'm alright yet worrying myself that I would worry myself sick (I just realize how that sounds). I don't know, I'm an holistic person but this doesn't feel like my body. I have never been so stressed or stretched this much. When I went to a shop called Nameste here in NYC (I love that store) the guy that works there who is extremely knowledgeable told me to keep writing (he was kind of reading me). I just want me back. Thanks for reading.

    1. You are having to deal with a truckload of losses and changes. Any one of them by itself would take serious effort to deal with. It's good that you have a close family, and it's good to realize that other people have it worse. But my gosh, you have a lot going on! Tired of adjusting to a new normal? I'm not surprised. All these changes probably have you spinning wondering which way to go. Find what continues to nurture you and return there as often as you need. It sounds like the Nameste store is one place, and so is writing. If you're a person of faith, find the places where you can sit for a time and feel accepted and peaceful. If nature brings you a sense of belonging, go there. With all of these changes, I think it's important to remember what you still have. Start there and expand your life. I think life is a series of expansions and contractions. We try out new things, and some of what we try goes well, while other ventures do not. But some do. Keep sharing with others. Remember there are no shoulds. Treat yourself with kindness and compassion, just as you would treat others.

  5. Thanks Mark! I look forward to coming back here also. 😊

    1. I welcome your presence and your insights. Stop by any time.