Who I am.

I write about the landscape of grief, nature, and the wisdom of fools. The author of four books, my essays, poems, and reviews have been published in over 50 journals, including in the Huffington Post and Colorado Review. I’ve won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, the Chautauqua and Literal Latte’s essay prizes, and my work has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and named a notable by Best American Essays. My account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with my wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. http://www.markliebenow.com.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Hollow Days

            I wasn’t finding much that was helpful for dealing with grief in my Christian community. Maybe this was because Ev died unexpectedly, or because her dying in her 40s left us in shock and made each of us feel vulnerable, as if any of us could die at any time. So I went looking at other religions to see what they did. The grief traditions in Judaism helped me the most, and this is what I understand about them.

            The Jewish pattern of care for the first year made me realize that grief was going to last longer than the few weeks I anticipated. That the traditions and rituals were 3000-year old gave me reason to trust them and not rush my journey. The basic rabbinic guideline is three days for weeping, seven days for lamenting, and thirty days for mourning. However, if the death was due to an act of violence, then more time is allowed.

            From the moment of death until the end of the funeral, survivors honor the dead in a time called aninut — the “hollow days,” an apt term because that’s how this time feels. Mourners tear a piece of clothing, symbolic of how their lives have been torn by this death.

            After the funeral, mourners observe shiva for seven days, covering mirrors so that they do not see how they look, and sitting with their grief while others take care of their basic needs. They also receive well-wishers in a time when I figure they’re numb to everything and the words of grief from others do not deepen their own. This gives the community the chance to acknowledge its sorrow over the death. 

            Following shiva, mourners return to work but refrain from going to parties and concerts as they continue to mourn for thirty days, shloshim. Public memorial services are often held at this point. After this, they rejoin the daily life of the world, believing that God will provide what they need. After twelve months, and on the anniversary of the death each year after, the yahrzeit, the dead person is remembered by lighting a “soul candle.”

            In addition, after every worship service, a group of people, a minyan, gathers and says Kaddish together as a community. This reminds us that death is always in our midst, that one of us is always grieving, and it affirms that no one grieves alone. It’s a prayer of remembering to praise God and give thanks for Creation even when someone has suffered a tragedy and wants only to curse. In this case, people say the prayer for those who are too grief-stricken, or too angry, to pray.

Basic Guidelines:
Accept your emotions.
Express your feelings. 
Heal in your own way and in your own time.
Share with others who understand grief.
A longer version of this post was originally published by Lunch Tickethttp://lunchticket.org/dress-the-mouse-in-black/


  1. What an exploration. I, too, am impressed by the traditions in Judaism. But it's not enough. I've had to borrow from others' traditions and make up my own rituals and ways to live with the death of my daughter. And like you, I've found that being in nature, especially high up in the mountains and hills or by large bodies of water, I find the most comfort and the most spiritual offerings. Cheers, Mark.

    1. It's interesting, Robin, how specific insights from different traditions speak to us at certain times during our grief journey. Some matters that didn't appeal to us at all in the first month of grief are so perfect at nine months. Same thing with books. We're not always looking for what they're offering. And yes, nature has been the greatest help of all.

  2. You should write about Hinduism also we don't celebrate any festival for one year.

    1. I need to look into this. Do you have any guidance for what I should read?