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, February 7, 2018

Café Adagio

Grief advice for a complacent millennial.

Sometimes you need attitude when talking to people about grief because so many are clueless, and polite words don’t penetrate their foot of insulation. Grief isn’t polite. It’s messy and filled with stampeding bison, but it also invites kindness, if we are paying attention. 

This is an imaginary conversation – what I wish I could have said.


Put your iPhone down and look at me. I asked you a very simple question, you know-it-all punk. All you had to do was answer like a normal person and we wouldn’t be in this situation. Tell me “It’s complicated” “Hard” “A drag” Whatever! I don’t care if you’re Snapchatting, Instagramming, or crushing candy on your phone. Put it down and look at me! You could have answered with a smidgen of respect for someone older. But no, you had to be a smartass and say, “What’s grief?”

Look outside. See the old man with his head down and hands stuffed in his pockets? He walks by here every day. A widower and lonely, he lives in a house where the yard needs work. See that middle-aged businesswoman across the café? She lost her daughter, but listening to her, you wouldn’t know. But you can see the sadness in her eyes when she smiles at the waitress.

You probably don’t know about Siddhartha. He was as clueless as you until he went walking through the less-than-affluent parts of town and saw how many people were suffering. But maybe you know Sandberg, one of Facebook’s head honchos. Sheryl lost her husband, and talked honestly about her grief in public. You’re probably too cool for Facebook. Stop drinking your Sanpelligrino Chinotto! Tell me what you know about grief, and I’ll leave you alone.

I’m guessing you’ve led a pampered life, what with your muslin shirt casually opened a button too far, your ruffled, asymmetrical hair, and your untied shoes without socks. But maybe you had a pet die, a grandparent, a distant cousin to opioids. You’re old enough to have lost somebody. If not, your parents have, but clearly something went wrong if they haven’t told you about grief. Maybe your mom had a miscarriage. Maybe your dad ran over Bambi. Maybe they’re hippies and letting you find your own way. For the sake of all that is good about humanity, I’m going to help you. 

What do you think about grief? Or are you as blasé about it as the cream color of your shirt? Even if you think that grief is something that happens only to old people, I know you’ve heard about the mass shootings in schools. Dead is dead. You know that, right? Unlike the movies, in real life the dead do not come back. How do you feel about that? Don’t you dare say, “What’s death?” or I will slap your glass.

See that painting on the wall? It’s by Alec DeJesus, a Peoria artist. At first I thought it was his creative interpretation of Kali, the Hindu goddess who destroys evildoers, but there were obvious differences — her skin wasn’t blue and she didn’t have four arms. Then I noticed the tiny owl’s head where her bindi, the third eye of spiritual sight, would be. With her ash-white face and the swirling yellow and red behind her head, she may be a nature shaman bringing awakening and inviting us to dance with the forces of life and death. If you get up close, you can see the cosmos in her eyes. I think she’s staring at you.

Look. I’m going to sit here until I know that you’re at least aware of the concept of death. I’m old enough now that my friends are beginning to die, and I want to know what a self-absorbed 20-something-year-old thinks about grief because when I was your age I knew how everything worked. I didn’t.

Here’s the thing. What are you going to do when your best friend dies? Shuffle behind your parents to the funeral, sing the old church hymns and eat tuna casserole afterwards? Head into the woods with your remaining friends to toke the dank weed with your friend, contemplate the bliss of elemental consciousness, and smudge the air with burning sage as you bury your friend’s ashes and bones? You don’t know, do you? 

You aren’t Doctor Who and your girlfriend isn’t Clara, zipping through time and space enjoying each other’s company without a care for all eternity. Oh, you know about British sci fi mythology but not about grief? News flash. Clara’s dead!


This is what I felt like saying. But I knew that no one understands the trauma of grief until it hits. This is when the dialogue begins.

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