If Mark’s writings don’t have you packing a rucksack or at least taking a stroll through the park then he’ll undoubtedly have you wandering around Yosemite in your imagination. Grief is a natural process and by turning to nature when his wife died, Mark shows us how it can help us soothe the pain and find balance and meaning again.
Q: You write a lot about grief and nature. This magazine’s Breathing Space pages are based on the idea that images of nature help but how would you say being in woodlands and mountains have helped you?
ML: Nature was my salvation after Evelyn died, particularly Yosemite. It became a refuge from the starkness of grief at home. Its beauty drew me out of my shell to see the world again.
Unlike friends and family, nature put no expectations on me. I could do what I felt like doing — sit by the river for hours, go on a long hike, or sleep all day.
When I stood on the top of North Dome and looked in wonder over the Sierra Nevada range and at peaks going up to 13,000 feet, I realized that something greater than my grief was going on, and I was part of it. I felt a renewing power surging through nature.
Grief impacts you physically. The physicality of camping was strong enough to counter it, so I let my body guide me. I’d hike for 14 hours a day, take a break when I needed to, and ate when I was hungry. When thoughts and feelings surfaced, I had time to work through them, and nature added its insights. The fresh air was invigorating, and the exercise gave me a shot of endorphins. Both improved my mood.
Many men would rather do something than talk about grief. Hiking is excellent for this. Then, when I came home, I was ready to share what I had discovered.
I also learned how nature deals with grief. Nature mourns its deaths for a moment, and then moves on. Nature is always adapting to changes.
I learned that the world was still a beautiful place, even though Evelyn was no longer in it.
At times, grief is like hiking endless switchbacks up a steep mountain to get over the pass at 10,000 feet and discovering a canyon and more mountains behind it.
At other times the journey seems so parched and barren that it’s like the desert, or it’s humid and chaotic like a jungle where insects and animals bite at your legs and neck. It can also feel like being abandoned on the rocky shore of an ocean, staring over nothingness, and wondering if enough is left to continue on.
Two friends took some of Evelyn’s ashes to Perthshire where her MacNair ancestors lived. There in the Grampian Mountains, in a spot with an ancient Celtic cross, a prehistoric stone circle, and three streams coming together, she rests.
Q: There doesn’t seem to be many widowers out there, writing about their experience. Are there any that you read and could recommend to our readers?
ML: Most of the grief books I’ve read by widowers are actually books about their wives or partners dying, with a few chapters at the end on how they coped with grief, so they don’t go into much depth. A couple of other books deal with having to raise a young child now as a single parent. They also don’t spend much time dealing with grief.
Men are expected to quietly work their way through grief and not talk about it. Perhaps this is why men don’t feel the need to write. And yet, men want to read what will help them from someone who knows.
The widower books I like are John Bayley’s, Elegy for Iris, C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and Gary Ferguson’s The Carry Home. The poets Jack Gilbert and Donald Hall have also written movingly about their wives.
Most of the grief books I adore, those that actually talk about the journey of grief, were written by women, such as Elaine Mansfield.
Men who aren’t widowers have written perceptively about grief like Neil Chethik, who has a book about how men grieve their dads in Fatherloss. Parallels can be drawn from his findings for the ways that men grieve any loss. Francis Weller wrote a tremendous book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow, that speaks about how men can work with grief through group gatherings and rituals, whether the loss is a job, home, or the death of someone they loved.
There are a few essays written by widowers that tend to focus on their personal journey, but generally it’s one and done. Earlier this year, Giles Fraser wrote perceptively about need for compassion when someone is grieving in an essay in The Guardian. Tim Lawrence isn’t a widower, either, but he continues to write about his experiences with the early trauma of grief and abuse.
More men write about the how-to or with therapeutic advice on what you need to do. This is head stuff. It’s not a personal journey for them. They don’t get down into the muck with you.
What you want when you’re grieving is not advice from someone who hasn’t grieved. You want someone who has been battered by grief and understands grief’s labyrinth. You want someone to listen. You want companionship.
Q: Would you encourage other widowers to start a blog? What are the pros and cons from your experience?
ML: I would encourage all men to keep a journal, especially in the beginning of grief, to help them pay attention to their thoughts and feelings, and write them down before dismissing them as unimportant. If a feeling or thought keeps coming back, it’s important. “Oh that’s interesting. Why did I think that?” Writing them down also allows you to go deeper.
Keeping a journal helps men see how they are progressing through grief. Then, when they know what they’re thinking and feeling, they can share this with someone. Sharing is tremendously important.
If you’re going to write a blog, you have to share your emotions, and you are going to have to be honest about them if anyone is going to care. You will hear from men who tell you to “suck it up and act like a man.” You will also hear from men saying, “You put into words what I’ve been feeling, and now I know why. Thank you.” Many people will will ask you to write about something that has been troubling them.
I’ve also expanded my blog to cover all aspect of grief. I correspond with quite a few women who are dealing with different kinds of losses.
Q: You’ve written several books. Does writing about grief differ from writing about other subjects?
ML: With grief, you’re dealing with something that’s invisible. You can feel the wound, the gaping hole in your chest, but you can’t see it. Nor can anyone else. It’s not like describing a thunderstorm raging about you, or standing in front of a snow-covered mountain. So you have to describe the invisible landscape and journey of grief in ways that invite others to travel along with you.
When I was writing Mountains of Light, about hiking in Yosemite to deal with Evelyn’s death, I experienced things in nature that led me deeper into what I was feeling. For example, one morning I was sitting along the Merced River watching it flow by, and felt it take pieces of my grief away. This led to thinking about how rivers have been important to the mental health of people in other cultures, so I include ruminations about that.
I’m now finishing up a proper memoir. I realized that I didn’t want to just write about my journey through grief, even though not many widowers have done this. I also wanted to put my grief into a larger context so that it would be helpful to everyone who was grieving, as well as helpful to their friends who wanted to understand what grief was like. Because we don’t talk about grief in our society, people have forgotten how to help those who are grieving.
Q: Where can we find more of your work?
ML: My book, Mountains of Light, published by the University of Nebraska Press, deals with going into nature to deal with grief. It’s also a good guidebook to the nature of Yosemite, if you happen to be traveling there.
My Widower’s Grief blog comes out every week on Wednesdays. It has a subject listing to help you find posts of interest to you. http://widowersgrief.blogspot.com
Every month I post an essay on grief at The Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-liebenow/
Over 50 of my essays, articles, and poems have been published in various journals like the Good Men Project, Manifest-Station, Modern Loss, Open to Hope, River Teeth, Lunch Ticket, and Under the Sun. You can Google my last name and “grief” and find many of them online, as well as several hour-long radio interviews.
First published in Widows & Widowers magazine, Issue 12