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 22, 2017

Rituals of Community and Grief

People walk around a center altar, and kneel in the darkness of a sanctuary as a candle is processed in by a dancer to the middle where a circle of candles is lit. A bell rings, and we open ourselves to the mystery of this moment, not knowing what we will discover, or what will be uncovered, tonight. A cello plays a meditative melody. A cup is shared. Bread is broken and passed among the people. The bell rings again.

We long to be embraced by mystery, not have it explained it away.

            No words have been spoken, but the gathering is filled with symbols. It is ritual, and we feel something rise within us, something that we had forgotten was there, something that quickens our pulse and draws us in.

            Ritual involves our senses. The movement of bodies, the sounds and rhythms of poetry, incense, bells, candles, music, and visual art help us move outside and beneath the surface of our conscious mind. Ritual guides us deeper into Presence, into the Unknown beyond words. Over the centuries, cultures and religions have created rituals that open human awareness to the invisible world around them. 

            With death and grief, there are communal rituals like the storytelling and singing of a Celtic wake, Christiancommunion, praying kaddish after worship in the Jewish faith, and the Lakota Sioux coming together as a community for mourning. 

            There are also personal rituals like lighting candles in the evening, setting up a small remembrance altar at home with ashes and objects important to our loved ones, visiting the gravesite, and keeping an empty chair and plate at the dinner table. The Japanese maintain small shrines in their homes where they continue to communicate with their ancestors.

            Ritual guides us through the canyons of disbelief, and maintains a bridge with those we love.

            In her TEDx talk, Elaine Mansfield, author of Leaning Into Love, says that we turn to rituals to connect our lives to the sacred. In her husband’s cremation box, Elaine put mementos of their life together and items important to Vic. She put in coffee beans and chocolate, not that she thought he would need them, but they were symbolic of what he enjoyed in life. She put in photographs of their life together, flowers, and written prayers. She buried his ashes near their favorite tree, prayed a Buddhist prayer, and built a cairn of rocks from the stream over it. Elaine goes there to be close to him, bringing, at different times, red crabapples, gladiolas, and candles, and moistening the rocks with her tears.

            Ritual is what engages our whole being — body, mind, and spirit. 

            Imagine a weekly ritual of drinking tea with someone who is also grieving. They sip tea in silence and watch each other’s eyes. One shares an experience, a thought or feeling, and there is a period of quiet before the other one responds. They watch expressions change on the other’s face. They touch each other on the hand. When the tea is gone, they rise, hug each other, and depart until next week.

            We are drawn to create rituals with our lives, We want to get lost in the language of our hearts like the poets, filled with the images of artists, and dance with abandon like Zorba when our emotions can find no other way of expressing what is surging through us. 

            What do many of us do at the gravesite of someone we love? We pick up a stone or a flower and take it home to remind us of a place that invites us into mystery

            Thanksgiving and the holidays will be filled with rituals. Listen to the ones that speak to you this year.


            The holidays are filled with rituals. Some are religious, and some come from society. Which ones affect you the most? Which ones are comforting? Which rituals disturb your focus on what you think is important about that holiday? Which ones sharpen your understanding?


  1. Thanks so much Mark. Wishing you and your a beautiful Thanksgiving. Celebrate the ritualď

    1. Peace be with you, as well. May there be a moment of gratitude, a touch of compassion, and a glimpse of awe for both of us.