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, December 13, 2017

The Gift of Presence

            Many grief books are not about grieving. They’re about dying, or having to take care of children as a single parent with grief set to the side. Or they’re self-help books geared for later in grief when you’re ready to come out and want ideas for how. A book by Joanne Cacciatore, a bereavement counselor, helps you deal with grief in the first year, which is when you need guidance and assurance the most. It’s called Bearing the Unbearable.

            What helps the most in early grief is having someone listen to us and accept what we’re saying as true. We need people to gently encourage us to go deeper into what we’re saying and explore what we’re leaving unsaid. Joanne does this. “Grief is not monochromatic. Grief, when fully lived is, just like nature itself, kaleidoscopic and intensely hued.”

            We don’t like to deal with grief because it’s hard and it’s messy. And yet, where things are hard is often where we make our greatest breakthroughs. Grief doesn’t become manageable until we start working with it.

            In each of 50 short chapters, someone’s grief is shared. While this is not a single grief narrative where you can feel the ebb and flow of someone’s journey, Joanne does weave in stories of her own life after her daughter’s death. She accompanies people on their grief journeys and provides insights that all grievers can use. As Joanne listens to the grief of others, her understanding of her own deepens. There are enough different kinds of losses addressed that ours is probably covered.

            The greatest gift we can give someone who is grieving is our presence. 

Wanting to be present to people who are suffering is a different orientation than we are used to. Rather than looking at grief as a problem to be solved, we are choosing to listen to what grief is saying, how it is guiding us to see life differently and clearer. Many of the people she sees in her practice have avoided grief for years, and this has led to problems like anger issues, alcohol and drug abuse, and social disconnection.

            Several chapters on self care are included — things like eating nutritionally, exercising, having set hours for sleep, and doing something that gives us a mental break from grief. Yet when we take care of ourselves, we feel selfish. It’s as if we think that we don’t have the right to be happy again. We do. Even if we know that our loved ones wanted us to be happy again, it’s still hard to give ourselves permission to do something nice for ourselves.

            I also appreciated learning about the grief traditions and rites of other cultures like Native Americans of the Southwest and the Sikhs. They illustrate how communal gatherings are therapeutic because they remind people that everyone’s death is a community event. 

            “Spirituality is a way into suffering, not the way out.”

            Helpful grieving practices are shared throughout the book, like maintaining an Emotion Focused Journal which, unlike most journals that record what we did, records how we felt throughout the day. Other practices include Letter to Self, the Remembering Box, Apology Letter, and Once-a-Day Vow. The “grief recipe” by Theresa is stunning.

            What also endeared Joanne to me was her habit of walking alone and barefoot in nature to sort through grief, opening herself to the surprise and wonders of the outdoors, because that is what I did. After my wife died, I often hiked alone in Yosemite to deal with grief (with shoes), and nature guided me back to life.

            Compassion for our own suffering enables us to feel compassion for others.

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