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, November 8, 2017

Facing Grief

Book: Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, Finding Joy, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant.

I like Option B for a number of reasons, but I would not give it to someone in their first year of grief. That would be like telling a football player who has just suffered a concussion to get back in the game, even though he doesn’t know where he is or which team he’s playing on.

I worry that by including Sheryl’s story of grief in a self-help book, others who are early in mourning will think that this is how to make grief’s pain stop. The danger is that if we do not face our grief, it will fester and grow worse. There are two other books I would recommend for the first year, one by Megan Devine and one by Joanne Cacciatore.

Sheryl’s book would not have helped me (or several dozen of my friends) in the first year of grief because it would have given me an excuse to ignore it. The book would have fed my belief that any problem could be overcome if I work hard enough.

But grief is not a problem to be solved. It’s a journey.

Doing does not equal being, and it didn’t work for me before. When a relationship ended after college, rather than deal with my feelings, I set up a daily schedule of self-improvement tasks. I worked harder and longer and plotted the results on a graph. After half a year I was no happier. I was still upset about the break up, and now I felt like a failure in addition to my loss because I couldn’t “solve” my feelings. When my wife died, I knew that I needed to face grief’s emotions. Self-help guides weren’t going to be useful until I was ready for them.

The way to deal with grief is to go through, not ignore it.

I heard about Sheryl through her Facebook posts after her husband David died, and then when she gave that electrifying commencement speech at UC-Berkeley. I was ecstatic, because grief wisdom doesn’t often make it into the news or public spaces. I was also impressed that she could speak so well about grief so soon after her husband’s death.

I’m a decade beyond the trauma of grief. When I read this book, I kept jumping ahead for more of Sheryl’s story because I liked her perceptions, and I wanted to see how she moved through grief. I would begin to get a sense of this, and then the book would break to summarize the helpful ideas presented or share what studies had shown.

Given the business backgrounds of the two authors, I’m not surprised that they would see grief as a problem that gets in the way of productivity. But we can’t overcome grief by force of will, determination, or positive thoughts. Grief is an ocean of swirling emotions. It goes deep into our psyche, and emotions are the clues that tell us what’s going on.

What did help was nature. I went to Yosemite as often as I could and spent time watching and listening to the outdoors. The Otherness of nature drew me out and gradually restored balance. During many long hikes, I began to understand what grief was doing. I listened to my heart and my body because they held wisdom that my mind did not.

Rather than try to jumpstart my life, I chose to take the slower path.

I wanted to work my way through grief, for as long as it took, and then be done with it. I also journaled every day for 18 months because this kept me in touch with what my emotions were doing, and sent up signal flags for when positive developments finally began to appear.

If Option B is helpful to you, great. If it’s not, then set it aside. Don’t short sheet your grief. I think you will find the book helpful later on.

What I would love to read five years from now is Sheryl’s full story of grief, uninterrupted.


  1. Thank you for this, Mark ~ and I agree with you completely!♥

    1. I totally agree with you, Mark. I admire Sheryl for all that she has achieved while going through early stage bereavement. But reading Option B I kept telling myself she had to and she could because she had young children who were looking up to her for guidance. My children are adults and I live alone and have to figure this out for myself. It has been 21 months now. I am going slow, sort of submitting to the flow. I think I will get more out of Sheryl's book once I get back some of the focus which is lost to me now. There is so much information in her book and I am a little overwhelmed at this stage. All I know now is I am in the grip of devastating grief. I have no option but to submit to it.

    2. I'm glad that you are letting yourself relax into the flow of your grief. It took me a while to do this, myself. It's not easy, and it took longer than I thought it would, but by doing this I found the place where grief and I could coexist. And yes, there's a lot of information in the book. There will be time for that later. I also understand why having to take care of young children can make you cut your grief journey short. Sometimes we don't have a choice.

  2. I thought this too, she seemed to be making such great strides that it made me feel crap/slow at grief, even three years out. I thought it was quite inspiring, but maybe too overwhelming.

    1. I hope she is doing well, and that she continues to work with her grief. We know that grief doesn't go away, but it changes, and we learn to live with it.