The Far Territories of Grief

I lay you down in the resting place. As for me, I will let my hair grow matted, put on a lion skin, and roam the steppe. — Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet VIII

In the early days of grief, it felt like I had been thrown into the far territories of human existence. No one knew what to say or do about my wife’s sudden death in her forties. 

I found myself in an abandoned, wood-plank house in skeletal backbone mountains. Sorrow was the bare window through which I looked. All light had narrowed to this. Every morning the harsh light of day burned into the curtainless room. Every word was set in grief’s desolation. Its language I was learning to speak.

Each day I went out and sat on the side of the wind-swept mountain and scanned the wide horizon, the shimmering chimera prairie grass, and the drift of the cloudless sky for remnants of Evelyn. Life flowed past as I waited for something unknown to come, and waited for a change in the direction of the wind. Hawks swept in, tore the husk of dusk with sharp skirls of loss. In the evening I made my way back to the house, hoping for more than a few hours of sleep.

Five months after Evelyn’s death, I still saw no bright colors, only frayed, tattered cloth flapping in the wind. At night I heard the footsteps of shadows wandering the longitude of the house.

My friend John, who began grieving his wife a year ahead of me, said the dead calm that was plaguing me would not last. Anger and pain would return. “I am now in the middle of my mourning, but it’s a long tunnel, and grieving is still (for the most part) my pervasive religion.”

Pervasive was right. Grief had pushed its way into everything we did and created its own environment. As we traveled through this wilderness, we supported each other as best we could. The images that spoke to us shifted from the beautiful to what was hard and violent — “thunderstorm,” “earthquake,” “forest fire,” “blizzard.”

“How could you not see the world through the lens of true grief?” my friend Steve said. “When my dad died, I did that for a while, but losing a parent who has lived a good life, and losing one’s spouse who has died too young are really different things. The most fully lived life will most likely have a depth of understanding that those who have been blessed (cursed, more like it) without different kinds of pain, won’t have at all.”

Every day I searched through the death books and explored the contours of this rugged land because the easy answers didn’t travel this far — The Grim Reader by Spiegel and Tristman, In the Midst of Winter by Moffat, Inventions of Farewell by Gilbert; literary writings on death, dying, and living on. Books on the afterlife, like Hick’s Death and Eternal Life and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, wanting to know where the dead go. Books on how to say goodbye, how to grieve, how to create personal rituals to honor our dead, let go, and heal. But it was too soon for books because words no longer held meaning.

Was grief too personal a journey and death too negative a land to nurture faith? I didn’t know, but this was where I was, and if faith was to survive it had to put roots down here. It had to speak to the dislocation and the desolation. Otherwise there was nothing to believe in. If faith did not speak when the world came apart, if faith could not offer hope in times of distress and sorrow, then what of any importance did it speak to? And if faith could not speak to this, then what would?

My heart was hollow as I braced myself against the strong wind, and listened.

Eventually my journey took me over the mountains and down through the valley of the shadows of death, and I moved among civilization again. There I found a community of people who understood grief, and nurtured me back to life.

I now understand that sorrow will be part of everyone’s life because people we love will die from accidents, illnesses, or old age. Yet the memory of grief’s desolation will remind me of the great need to share my compassion with others who are suffering.

 

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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  • Robin Botie says:

    This was indeed an honest and beautiful picture of the landscape of early grief. I remember the place well. Cheers!

  • Branka Kojic says:

    Mark,

    Your words as painful as they are, for someone experiencing grief of the same kind, are somehow like rain falling on the feverish face or mountain stream rushing through the soul tortured by pain, guilt, remorse and loneliness. Your words felt healing to me at least for a moment in desolate land of sorrow. My husband died 6 months ago and I am still roaming the NOWHERE woods with no hope on the horizon.

    • Oh Branka, I just saw your comment. I guess messages aren’t forwarded to my email. Six months in! What a rough time that is. At least it was for me. The first nine months were horrible. Then months of apathy. Now you’ve moved past the year anniversary. I hope that you see some hope on the horizon, even if it still seems a long ways away. There are a lot of us at this stage of the journey that find it hard to believe that life will ever be okay again. I cover more topics on my website, and there you can leave messages that I will see – http://widowersgrief.blogspot.com.