Re-Imagining Grief: When Family and Culture Offer No Help

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We are taught how to grieve by the legacy carried in our families, or more accurately, we are taught how to cover death up. This presented a problem when my wife Evelyn died.

I was told that one side of my family was pushed out of Scotland because of the Clearances, settled in Ireland for a time, and then came to America. I was told that the other side fled Germany in the late 1800s when Bismarck was conscripting males for another of his wars, began life in a new country, and created a farm on a prairie in Wisconsin.

Beyond this, few of my ancestors’ stories were passed down through the generations, so I don’t know the hardships they suffered, or how they grieved the deaths of family members, or how they struggled to deal with the loss of home. I suspect that some of my foremothers died in childbirth. I suspect that some of my forefathers died in wars or from farming accidents. But I don’t know. I try to imagine what their lives were like by reading the accounts of other people in similar situations.

I live with borrowed grief.

Three of my four grandparents died in old age, each when I was away at school, so I wasn’t there to see them in their last days, or watch my parents grieve. The fourth died when I was eight, and I saw his yellow waxen face in the open casket. In my grandparents’ time, it was common for children to die, yet I never heard them speak of death. I suspect that many of their siblings died before they reached adulthood.

In an off moment, I was told that my mom had a miscarriage, but I don’t recall my parents saying if they were torn up by this. My recollection is they were matter of fact — “It happens.” When I go through old boxes and find the photo of my mom’s sister who died in her 20s, I can see the sadness in mom’s eyes for someone who died too young.

Both of my parents ended up as the only adult child in their family, so I didn’t have any cousins, nephews or nieces around to die young and expose me to my own trauma of out-of-sequence death. At the dinner table emotions weren’t discussed, so stray bits of tragic past history didn’t wander into our discussions. I don’t know whether to blame the stoicism of the Scots or the Germans for this. I imagine that when my parents grieve, they do so quietly behind closed doors.

There is much that I don’t know about the generations of my family, but as far as I know, we aren’t hiding any horrible secrets. Nothing like my friends who have discovered that their elderly Jewish parents or grandparents went through the death camps of the Holocaust, something so horrible that they never spoke of it, feeling guilty for having survived, and enduring every grief since then with unexplained resignation.

So I have no family experiences to teach me how to deal with grief. Because we don’t talk about death in America, I have no social traditions to help me. Because I grew up low-church Protestant, there are no religious liturgics to usher me into the mystery of death, no smells or bells to create a sacred space where I might explore its depths. Because my family assimilated into America long ago, I have no lingering cultural rituals to guide me.

In America we don’t grieve; we get back to work.

When my wife died, my family was 2000 miles away, and I was dropped into grief’s desert to find my way across the barren landscape on my own. This would have been a prime time for my parents to share with me how they dealt with the deaths of their parents.

While I don’t carry ancestral burdens of grief, I’m also without the anchors of how they overcame their struggles, and without the light of their hard-won wisdom to guide me through the dark days. I drift through grief trying to bear witness to my wife, patch life back together as best I can, and grieve in ways that seem helpful.

The other day in my grief-writing community, we were trying to visualize the wreckage we encounter in grief.

I was walking through a bombed-out city that looked like it was somewhere in Europe during World War II. It wasn’t an actual memory because I hadn’t yet been born. It seemed like a movie set with people frozen in position. There were no sounds, no wailing over the dead, no anguish for the wounded. I thought I was walking through the landscape of my grief, but I didn’t recognize the town. Now I think it was how I thought my parents dealt with grief.

What do I do with this image that rose from my subconscious? I could interact with it by continuing to walk down the streets, looking into the buildings to see what symbolic images and people show up. But as I stood on the street, I realized that this wasn’t my place. What I wanted to do was walk out of town and into the hills, and there, nestled in the arms of the mountain, cry. This is how I wanted to grieve.

Iris Murdoch said, “Bereavement is a darkness impenetrable to the imagination of the unbereaved.”

Even with the power of her mind to find her way through philosophical labyrinths, she could not understand grief. It’s certainly not what I thought it would be. I was told that death is a natural part of life, but Evelyn dying in her forties just feels wrong, and it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around that.

How my society grieves doesn’t cut it. I need more than the diluted traditions we inherited that are more form than meaning. A funeral followed by casseroles and Jell-O salads isn’t enough. I want to experience grief with all of its raw energy.

I want to hold a wake with uncontrolled weeping. I want keening on a storm-ravaged moor. I want sobbing and crying, followed by drinking, stories, and laughter.

I need to re-imagine grief.

I will light candles and sing softly. I will speak my beloved’s name to the darkness. I will draw her blanket around me and feel her close. I will make an altar and place on it her ashes and possessions that were important to her.

And I will write down my insights so that others who lose someone close will not have to wonder what it means to grieve.

Mark Liebenow

More Articles Written by Mark

Mark Liebenow grew up in Wisconsin. When he moved to California, he often went to Yosemite and discovered the transcendence of Nature that John Muir wrote about. It was during this time that his wife Evelyn died suddenly of an unknown heart problem when she was in her forties. Liebenow now lives in Illinois where he helps friends preserve heirloom seeds on their organic farm. He writes about grief, nature, and the theology of fools. Liebenow is the author of four books, the most recent being Mountains of Light: Seasons of Reflection in Yosemite, about going into nature to deal with grief. It was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2012. His essays, poems, and literary criticism have been published in journals like The Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Spoon River Poetry Review, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Disquieting Muses Quarterly, Clackamas Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Rain Taxi Review. His poems have been set to music by composers Stephen Heinemann, “Mirage,” an eight-minute work for chorus and soprano saxophone; John Orfe, “God of the Night,” a choral piece commissioned by the Choral Arts Ensemble of Rochester, Minnesota; Robert Levy, “Maybe Sadness,” a jazz song that has been recorded. He has won the Chautauqua Nonfiction Prize, the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize, the Literal Latte Essay Prize, the Sipple Poetry Award, received honorable mentions for the Editor’s Prize at The Spoon River Poetry Review and the Academy of American Poets Prize. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, an Illinois Arts Council Award, and named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2012. Liebenow studied creative writing in the graduate school at Bradley University and English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He holds M.Div. and M.A. degrees., and speaks before groups and gives workshops on a variety of topics.

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