Every Wednesday

Every other Wednesday, I will post a reflection on grief as I continue to explore its landscape and listen to your experiences. In the sharing of our stories with each other, we find encouragement and build a community of support and understanding.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Grief, Sci Fi, and Courage

When we need a break from grief, movies can provide an escape for a couple of hours, although we have to choose carefully because if someone dies in the movie like our loved one, we end up feeling worse. Movies can reach places inside us that are shaky, provide encouragement for dealing with the challenges that lie ahead, and offer a different way of looking at life.


The future can be limited by our fears.


When I was going through grief and needed relief from sorrow, several science fiction movies and TV shows kept my spirits up. As their stories became part of my life, I came to think of their characters as real. In Doctor Who, one of the shows on the BBC, River Song says, ‘Aren’t we all just fairy tales?’ They were certainly better companions than some of my friends who disappeared because they were scared of grief. Behind the characters were flesh and blood writers, people who understood the nuances of grief. 


We are the sum of our stories.


Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings books have been part of my library since college when I tacked a 3x5-foot poster of Middle Earth to my apartment wall. Later they would shore me up when my wife died young because they were stories of physical adventures, and with my mind unable to grasp what had happened, I needed to be physical but rather than battle orcs, ogres, and trolls, I went hiking in the wilderness. Recently I watched the movies again and was struck by how ordinary people did what needed to be done, even though they were scared and didn’t think they had the required skills or strengths. But they gathered their courage and stepped forward. It was also clear that even in the movies where characters often miraculously survive, people I cared did die, even if they were fighting for good causes. The writers got that part right, too.


On Doctor Who, the Doctor has companions he loves as they travel around the cosmos with him. When they leave him to get on with their lives, he grieves their loss. But when Amy and Rory die because of the Weeping Angels, the Eleventh Doctor is so devastated that he gives up saving the universe and hides away as a monk. Until Clara shows up. Because of her compassion, his humor returns (“Bow ties are cool!”) and he opens his heart to caring again. Even when they seemed doomed and survival impossible, the Doctor says, “We are not helpless.” and together they figure a way out. 


To be fearful of something is where the adventure begins, if we have the courage to take that first step.


Perhaps what appeals to us most about science fiction and fantasy stories, besides the epic adventures, is that they are often vision quests. You probably grew up hearing about teenage Native Americans being sent into the wilderness to receive the vision that would guide the rest of their lives. Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) explored the similarities of these quests in many cultures, and his work inspired the Star Wars movies, which inspired new generations of those who believe in responding when people are being abused.


When grief strikes, the future we expected with that person is swept away, and what we desperately need, after the shock and numbness have worn off, is a new vision to guide us, a new direction to head, or a new purpose that brings energy and excitement back into our lives.


We are limited only by our imaginations. If we can dream something new, it can happen.


We would all like to live long lives, although that’s not really the point of living. What we want more is to live lives of meaning. The rock climbers I camped with in Yosemite saw life as an adventure, and when I was mired in the doldrums of grief, they encouraged me to take more risks when I hiked. For themselves, they felt that they had to risk falls, broken bones, ripped tendons, even death if they were going to discover what they and life were made of. At the end of their lives, they wanted to look back without regret for opportunities they could have taken.


In movies and TV shows, people took deep breaths and stepped forward into the unknown, even though they were scared and didn’t know if they would survive. This is what confronts those who grieve every day. There were times when I didn’t know how I was going to make it through. It takes an enormous amount of courage to walk into public with grief filling our eyes as we shop for groceries and search for reasons not to give up.


It also takes courage to listen to someone who is grieving, knowing that you can’t take their pain away, and knowing that you don’t know what words will comfort them.


Death is not the enemy of living. Settling for a dull life is. Do something each day that takes your breath away. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Life is a River

I do not like dying. None of us do, I suppose. Every time someone or something we love dies, part of us dies with them. I also don’t like changes.
Whenever I return to Yosemite, or to any favorite place in nature, I want those places to look exactly the same. I want the scenic views that inspire me, and I want those mountains, forests, or rivers to make me feel alive. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

In Darkness My Heart Breathes

I hurry through the warmth of the day to reach the night’s cool solace. In the exhalation of the tired sun over the earth’s dusty horizon, as gray shadows deepen into the long evening hours, as bright stars and planets appear in the clarity of the cobalt night air, I let go of all the chores that did not get done.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Grief is a Ritual

Riffs on a hidden subject

In the Cathedral of the Constellations, candles burn on the altars. The ritualized patterns of hands moving in the air. Kneelers worn by decades of devotion. The stone labyrinth on the floor. Prayers echo in the wooden rafters, there among the primary elements of the universe—faith hope, doubt, community, kindness, despair, and love.

Those who grieve don’t need words of sympathy. They need our hugs and presence.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Broken Like Pottery

In this time of the pandemic, we are fearful, anxious, and scared. Some of us have lost loved ones, jobs, or health care. We struggle to believe that when this is over, we will be able to return to something close to normal. 

Each loss fractures us like pottery. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Sitting on a Dark Mountain

When grief comes, it pulls a blanket of darkness over our world. We enter a void of everything we’ve ever known and loved.

When my wife Evelyn died, I went to Yosemite and sat in the darkness of Glacier Point between the solitary lights of the constellations above and the campfires of happy people a mile below. The life I had known had abruptly ended, and I found myself in a place where there even the stars seemed unfamiliar. I tried not to think about the bears and mountain lions moving in the forest behind me.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Giving Life

Organ Donation

We generally don’t like to think about death. Because of the coronavirus, we’re now thinking about it every day, and we’re worried because so much about the disease remains unknown.

When someone we love dies, the waves of emotion, finality, loss, and shock overwhelm our system and we don’t know what we’re supposed to do next. When doctors ask if we want to donate their organs, we may not understand the gravity of what they’re asking.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Death of a Hawk

The Great Black Hawk saga.

A short essay of mine about a rare hawk was published by Entropy Magazine today. It’s also about curiosity, death, grief, compassion, wilderness, healing, kinship with nature, ecological warning, hope, and what it means to live in community with the earth. 

I worry about what I would have done if I hadn’t had nature in the months after Evelyn’s death. I often went to Yosemite to hike alone in the wilderness because I needed to figure out how I was going to survive grief. The long days on the trail gave me the time and the solitude I needed to listen for what I could not hear at home. The beauty and awe of natural world reminded me that I was not alone, and that I always had a place where I could go and renew my spirit.

(Yes, that's an owl in the photo because I don't have my own photo of a hawk, but the journal has a good one.)

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Living in a Time of Anxiety

We are anxious and fearful because we don’t know how the coronavirus will affect us or change our world. We know that the normal pattern of our lives has been disrupted, but we don’t know for how long. We feel unprepared to deal with the pandemic. We’re tired and scared and angry.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Prayer For Dark Times

Prayer for Dark Times

In this dark time, as flowers rise from the earth towards the light, may we so rise.

May we be grateful for what we have, and mindful of the refugee, the battered, 
the widowed, the sick, the abandoned. 
May we realize when we have enough and share the rest.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Fractured Fairy Tales

Grief and fairy tales aren’t obvious dinner companions.

When we’re grieving, we would dearly love for someone to ride in on a great white horse and rescue us. This seldom happens. What we get instead is a coyote who appears on the trail and says, “Walk this way,” and heads deeper into the dark forest.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

100 Miles Beyond Where Jesus Lost His Sandals

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten journey for Christians. It’s when they look to see how far they have strayed from the path of faith, and if they need a refresher course in humility.

The title of this post struck me as fitting both the journey of faith and the journey of grief when we have to be brave and travel far beyond everything we’ve known, trusting that we will somehow make it through. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Cantus: The Silence of Grief

In Arvo Pärt’s Cantus, a composition for orchestra and Orthodox bells, silence is written into the music. There are times when no musicians are playing, yet in this silence we hear reverberations of the notes recently played. We hear them even though no one is playing.

So it is in grief after a loved one has died. We still hear their voices reverberating in our hearts. We see their shadows moving through our days, and feel brushes of their touch, even though their bodies are physically gone.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Expressing Grief Through Music

As we get older, more of our friends and family pass away. Some die from old age, but too many die young, we think, before their time, from accidents, cancer, and other causes. Realizing how fragile life is, and how quickly death can come to the unsuspecting and unprepared, can unnerve us so much that we wake every morning fearing that someone else has died overnight. Every strange ache, cough, and tick of our body can make us think that something is seriously wrong and we’re next.

Friday, January 10, 2020

We All Should Know What to Do

Everyone who grieves has had trusted friends who disappeared because they didn't know what to say or do for someone who is grieving, and they didn't want to say the wrong thing. Or they were uneasy around unpredictable emotions. Or they didn't want to feel helpless in helping someone stop crying. Or they hadn't worked through losing someone close to them in the past. Or they’re not good with emotions. Or they were scared.

There are many reasons not to take the risk. But they fall short when you care about someone.

Everyone should know what to do and say by now. This information is available on the Internet. There are grief memoirs they can read to help them understand the basics of every kind of loss—spouse, child, parent, sibling—cancer, heart attack, stillbirth, accident—(although still not so many are being written by men). 

If they care about someone  people need to trust their compassion to guide them​. They won't be able to take someone’s grief or pain away, but they can sit and listen to someone so that they don’t feel so alone.

My new essay about this at Rebelle Society: http://www.rebellesociety.com/2020/01/06/markliebenow-grief/

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

New Year of Grief

The first New Year’s after a loved one dies, the future looks like a rocky coast. There is no celebrating. No late night dancing. No sparklers or blowing of horns. No party.

We don’t know what to do or which direction to head. Because our loved one is not here, no matter what amazing things also happened last year, like a job promotion or a new car, the death renders them meaningless. We do not look forward to what is coming in the new year because most of our dreams involved the one who died.

Monday, December 23, 2019


Solitude permeates the snow-covered Mariposa Grove of giant sequoias. On a late afternoon in December, I wander among the elders of the forest—Columbia, Telescope, the Grizzly Giant, and resting my hand on the rough, cinnamon bark of one tree nearly 3000 years old. I am moved to be touching something living that is this old.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Winter Reflection

The end of the year has come and work remains to be done, but many of us are tired.

May we walk slower today and breathe deeper.

As much as we love the holidays—the good food, good friends, and the festive music—they add on additional tasks. We want to remember why we take time to celebrate these special and holy days of people and nature. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Solace of Nature

Whenever grief knotted me up, I headed for nature. Breathing the fresh air of the mountains, wandering through the woods, or sauntering along a river, uncluttered my mind and reopened my heart.

Nature asked little of me. It accepted me as I was, and invited me to share its community.

I could sit beside a river for hours and let the sounds of the undulating water soothe my struggles. I could wander in the forest’s shadows when the brightness of the day became too much. As I hiked over the mountains, I could physically work out my anger, frustrations, and find moments of happiness that pushed back against despair.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Holiday Black and Blues

The holiday season begins with Thanksgiving. We will take a deep breath and step on the roller coaster ride that will zip us through a gauntlet of paper-wrapped, bow-tied, fancy-clad celebrations and parties, changing out one set of decorations for another as the next holiday begins. 

Depending upon your background, your formal observances could include Hanukkah, Advent, the Winter Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s. Many of them celebrate the presence of light, like Diwali that came earlier. It’s a time of renewing our faith in matters unseen and harvesting hope for the coming year.