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.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Holiday Black and Blues

The holiday season begins with Thanksgiving. We will take a deep breath and step on the roller coaster ride that will zip us through a gauntlet of paper-wrapped, bow-tied, fancy-clad celebrations and parties, changing out one set of decorations for another as the next holiday begins. 

Depending upon your background, your formal observances could include Hanukkah, Advent, the Winter Solstice, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year’s. Many of them celebrate the presence of light, like Diwali that came earlier. It’s a time of renewing our faith in matters unseen and harvesting hope for the coming year.

For those who lost loved ones this year, the holidays will be a hard six weeks. 

Even in the best of times, the holidays leave most of us exhausted and wondering if they are worth all the trouble. The endless shopping, baking, and gathering with gaggles and pods of people will deposit us on January 2nd feeling fragmented and weary. We wonder if we feel any happier, wiser, or more grounded. We consider declining a few of the invitations next year so that we can move through at a more mindful pace, one that actually nurtures us.

For those who are grieving, the holidays will remind us, over and over, who is missing. For six weeks there will be unending anguish and despair, studded with death, cloaked with shadows, and silent of the laughter and joy that we experienced last year. For six weeks the holidays will remind us of the empty chair at the table.

No matter where we go or what we do, those who grieve will be confronted by celebrations. If you lost a spouse, you will feel bitter when you see happy couples. If you lost a child, watching children skipping through the snow will dig a knife in deep.

There will be little fa-la-la for us this year, and maybe not the next, because in the first year we walk with the absence of the person who died. The second year will be filled with the ghosts of their memories.

Every time we venture into public during the holidays, the message we hear in the songs on the radio and the specials on television is that everyone should be happy, and if we’re not, then something is wrong with us. 

The holidays aren’t about the sparkling lights, decorations, or the weirdly-happy dulcimer music. These are only the wrappings. The heart of the holidays is inside. They’re about slowing down, listening to our lives, and taking care of those for whom sorrow has filled their days, and hope has tumbled down the basement stairs. 

We are allowed to step off the holiday ride. 

The grieving aren’t obligated to be happy. We can say “No” to all invitations. Pick what nourishes you this holiday season and ignore the rest. Be selective about the religious services you attend. Be with those who accept you as you are. Maybe you only want to take long walks through the woods, listen to the land, and feel its deep assurance.

If you go to a party, and pressure starts building and you want to bolt, take a break and go outside for a moment. Watch the wonder of the stars until the tension settles. You have taken a risk by choosing to be among happy people. You can choose to go home at any time. If you are the host and invited someone who is grieving, allow them to sit on the side and participate as little as they want. Having a safe way to socialize is a gift.

Sometime during the holidays, you may be in a café by yourself, or at a bar, or in a chair at home looking out the window at the beauty of the snow coming down, when a wave of melancholy sweeps over, or a song comes on and reminds you of who isn’t here, and you cry. What this means is that you loved someone deeply and they loved you. As painful as it feels, it would be worse if you shut your emotions down and didn’t let yourself feel anything at all.

The gift of the holidays is compassion. No special wrapping required.


A version of this appeared on the Huffington Post