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 13, 2019

Faith and Grieving

If you’re grieving and a person of faith, no matter what religion you follow, you are probably torn between how you think you should feel and how you actually do. You sense a distance between the assurance of faith and the raw emotions of death. 

We put a lot of shoulds on ourselves because of faith that generally work to deny our emotions. When grief slams into us, we think our faith should be strong enough to hold back the pain and sorrow. We think we should believe that everything is happening according to God’s plan. We think we should have unquestioning faith and be joyous even when we’re burying our loved one. There are no shoulds in grief. How we feel is how we feel, and this is where we have to begin.

Having faith does not prevent us from suffering, but it gives us a way of enduring.

We start by taking an inventory of everything we’re feeling, and doing so without making any judgments about whether the feelings are good or bad. This may be a Jesuit notion, Buddhist, or simply psychology. Here are three examples from the Jewish/Christian side of things for why we should respect our emotions more than most of us do.

If you’ve read the Psalms, you know how the psalmists ranted and raged against God when they were suffering. How they despaired and tobogganed into depression. How they cried day and night and couldn’t get any satisfaction. They were angry and argued with God over what they thought were injustices. And God accepted their honesty.

In the 16thcentury, the wife of Anglican poet-priest John Donne died. He wrote “Holy Sonnet 17” that expressed his gratitude that she was now in joyous heaven where it was always autumn with its warm, rich colors. Then he wrote about his despair in “A Nocturnal Upon S. Lucy’s Day,” feeling like he was every dead thing. For Donne, sorrow was a deep, human response to something tragic, and it was as much a natural part of faith as was love.

In the 20thcentury, the writer C.S. Lewis spoke openly of his grief after his wife died. He said that ‘an unexamined faith was likely no faith at all, but hollow.’ If we do not have questions about our faith when tragedy strikes, if we do not seek answers for what we do not understand, then we do not mature and our faith is as flimsy as a paper lantern in a windstorm. 

Helping people who are grieving is a matter of compassion, not theology.

Besides accepting our emotions as valid, think about this. Maybe God wants us to take the slow path through the Valley of the Shadows of Death so that we understand how desolate and abandoned people can feel. Maybe God wants us to explore grief so that we learn how to help others who are grieving. 

If faith is to be real, it has to be rooted in our struggles, because it’s in the ruins of our heart that words of consolation have meaning. It’s in our deepest desolation that hope finds its footing. It’s in the loneliness of our dreams that we learn how much we need the help of others if we are going to survive. 

Faith is rooted in our struggles for a reason—not to deny them, but to help us face them, and to find through them a new source of strength. 

We are God’s hands in this world. We survive grief as a caring community, or we do not survive.


This post was also published on April 26, 2019 in The Grief Dialogues.