When death comes, we leave the world of light behind and enter a world of shadows.

Colors mute to gray. Sounds are all in the distance. Even if it’s sunny and in the eighties, the air feels cold and we wear a jacket. Food tastes like cardboard, so we don’t eat. Everything we pick up is rough to the touch. Our world shifts into slow gear.

When my wife died suddenly, the world I had known went dark. The shock of what had happened was so unlike anything I had experienced before that my sensory awareness of the world went numb. The thing called Grief was so massive that it blocked everything else out.

The darkness is where we go when someone we love dies. When death hits, the world becomes a commuter train with flashing lights, clacking rails, and packed with chatting people. Then we’re standing alone on the platform at midnight in an empty station. The darkness and silence are a relief because the world has become too bright, too loud. Finally we can breathe.

We leave the platform and walk into an open field. At first nothing seems to be here. Nothing is moving. Our eyes adjust to the darkness, and stars emerge. Their stillness brings presence to the hours. Each star seems alone, separated by light years from each other, but as we watch, we detect the thin, gossamer threads that connect each star to a constellation.

After Evelyn’s death, I often went to Yosemite. At night I would walk into the meadow by myself and get lost in the stars that seemed impossibly close. Constellations drifted overhead. Everyone had turned in for the night, even the animals, except for a few who wanted a late night snack, and I tried not to think about them. The meadow was so quiet that I could hear the hoot of an owl on the other side of the valley and the footsteps of what I think was a coyote trotting by.

In the cool, still night, as I battled anger and despair, I tried to see a way through the chaos that death had left behind, and I began to figure out what I needed to do to survive.

Tonight, as on every night, hundreds of new people are getting off trains in dark stations around the world and coming into the meadows, thinking they’re alone as they watch the stars. We begin to sense others who are grieving around us, even though we don’t know their names or where they live.

Some of you I will eventually meet, and we will wish that we had met earlier because it would have made grief’s journey less lonely. Many of you I will never know, only sense your presence as we pass by on the streets of a largely indifferent world. But we have learned to speak the same language.

This is why I write about grief, to let you know that you’re not alone, and to give you encouragement that there is a way through.

We don’t know how long this dark night will last for any of us, but we wait and hold on to what faith we have. We wait and think about the lives of good and loving people who have been ripped away. We wait and try to envision what might come next.

One day we will know what we want to do. One day the early morning light will come into the darkness and dispel the gray mist. It will touch our faces with warmth and flow into our hearts, and we will begin taking the steps to a new life.

Yet the blessings of this dark night will travel with us, reminding us that there are others who understand the devastation of a broken heart.


Mark Liebenow

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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