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, January 17, 2018

Dark Night of Grief

Dark Night 1 of 4: Shattered Illusions

Many people feel uncomfortable when they’re alone in the darkness, even when they’re standing in their own backyard and watching the stars at midnight. It’s as if the darkness can’t be trusted and this is where nasty creatures live. Like Thomas Merton, I find presence and solace watching the stars in the dark hours before dawn. This is when words of inspiration come, and meditation deepens.

With grief, however, when the darkness lingered for longer than I thought it should, and dawn did not come, I began to feel uneasy.

In his book, A Hell of Mercy, Tim Farrington speaks of darkness and the liminal space that swirls us through despair, depression, melancholia, and, sometimes, spiritual growth.

There is a long dark night in everyone’s journey through grief. It’s not the same as St. John’s dark night of the soul, although they can dovetail. When our life is shattered, when all we have known and believed lies scattered on the floor, it is then that we are open to new dimensions of reality.

Because of grief (or some other traumatic event), we find ourselves in a place that can be described as an extended night, as if we have been tossed into the dark winter months of the Arctic Circle where there is no light for months, and only brief glimmers on the distant horizon that quickly disappear. We feel lost, unable to move or get out, with a lethargy that dogs our heels day after day. This edge of despair can linger inside us for years, because we have lived for a time in a place beyond what can be seen.

When grief comes, it comes as an avalanche that sweeps away our sources of strength and places of refuge. It dampens the lights that have guided us, leaving the world clothed in dark shadows. Grief strips away many of the illusions we have pasted over life to soften its harshness and make it palatable. Grief brings clarity of sight, and we awaken to reality, both its suffering and its compassion.

Grief will challenge our faith to its core, no matter what religious tradition we follow, especially if this is the first death of someone close. It will pull down the belief that if we are faithful, if we keep our part of the bargain, then life will return the favor and we will be happy. While the darkness around us can lead to spiritual growth, it doesn’t automatically lead into St. John’s dark night. That is a step further and, as Tim Farrington says, this is not a step we choose. 

When death comes to someone we love, a spiritual darkness often settles over us because many religions say little about how to care for someone who is grieving, or how to cope with an out-of-order death. A sudden death. A death due to the violence of others. And because there are no signposts we can grab to hold ourselves in place, we can lose our grip on faith and slide into despair.

When we first enter grief’s dark place, we try everything we know to get out. We work harder and longer. We read profound books, and stuff positive thoughts into our pockets and ears. But there comes a point when we realize that nothing we do is working because we still feel broken. It is then that we let go of trying to deflect the pain, let go of our egos, and let grief and God guide us where they will. When we are feeling battered and lost, it is agonizingly difficult to do nothing but wait in the darkness for something unknown to come. Yet we do, because we have to.

Tim: “Grief will never go away, if we’re really paying attention. It’s part of being awake; we love, and we lose those we love to the erosions of time, sickness, and death…. To lose a loved one is to be called to come to genuine terms with that loss, or risk losing touch with that in us which loved.”

In time, rather than try to resurrect our old life out of the broken pieces of the past, we begin to create a new life, using what we are discovering about reality and ourselves. We find others in the darkness who are also grieving. As we share, a new community forms, and we help each other bear the sorrow. We are learning the language of the dark landscape, and finding the strength to endure. No longer are we afraid of the darkness or the unknown. 

Grief’s dark night reveals that only love is important, because love opens our hearts in compassion to others and to ourselves.

Dark Night One – Tim Farrington. Shattered Illusions

Dark Night Two – Brené Brown. Weaving the Shadows Together

Dark Night Three – Kathleen Norris. Losing Our Sandals

Dark Night Four – Mirabai Starr. Integrating Our Loss

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