Hand behind frosted glass

Grief hits with the force of a dump truck, leaving us battered and achy for months. Every morning we wake up, remember that our loved one is dead, and the truck runs over us again. 

Our encounter with grief is so powerful, so eye-popping, that we are sure people can tell what has happened by looking at us. We feel physically different, rearranged, and we stand in front of a mirror to see if we can detect the changes. Yet, as overwhelming as the experience is, as transforming as it feels, we see little difference on the surface of our skin.

Louise Gluck referred to her experience with grief as being transfigured, feeling that she existed more as spirit than in her body.

Existing more as spirit than as a body.

I felt detached from my body. All my physical senses were numb. I was cold all the time. Food tasted like sawdust, and flowers had no scent. As the impact of death faded, my senses gradually returned, but it would take a long time for sensual feelings to rekindle. Unlike some widowers, I didn’t seek the comfort or diversion of sex. I wouldn’t have any interest in dating for two years.

A number of friends have said that people thought they were back to being okay because they were smiling again, but underneath they were still being torn apart by anger, despair, and sorrow.

I also went outdoors. At a time when my mind and heart were in shock, my body knew what I needed. I hiked in the mountains of Yosemite, slept when I was tired, and ate when I was hungry. I sat by wild rivers, listened to the water cascading by, and watched the sun rise and set. Slowly I began to hear the birds singing again and see the beauty of the forest around me.

A year after my wife died, I visited my friend Judy. Her husband had passed away three years before, and both of us ended up widowed in our forties. She was getting remarried and I could see the excitement in her eyes, but there was also lingering sadness. Throughout the afternoon she shared her insights about grief, but all I needed to see were her eyes. They told me I would survive, I could love someone else, and I would always grieve Evelyn.

In Survivor Café, Elizabeth Rosner,a daughter of Holocaust survivors, writes about discovering that she physically inherited trauma from her parents. Research in epigenetics is showing that prolonged stress and trauma cause chemical reactions in the body that can change the DNA that is passed on to offspring. Then, when the offspring experience trauma, they react in ways they can’t explain. 

If you are sharing your grief with me, I will hug you to bridge the gap so that you don’t feel physically alone in your sorrow. Too many people have kept their distance as if we had leprosy or the plague. I want you to know that grief does not scare me. 

People came to my house to see how I was doing and hugged me. At a time when words held little meaning, their physical contact let me know that I was still part of the community. Their presence helped move grief out of my head and into my body where emotions and tears could be expressed. They brought warm food to eat, wine to drink, and went walking with me around the neighborhood. 

Sometimes compassion doesn’t require words, only touch.

I would love to hear about your experiences. Leave a comment below, and I’ll respond.


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  1. Demarcus Howe on April 14, 2019 at 10:19 am

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  2. George Heimel on April 14, 2019 at 6:50 am

    Brother Mark. You get right to the essence and hit those heartstrings as usual. “We feel physically different, rearranged, and we stand in front of a mirror to see if we can detect the changes.” So very YES! I feel like my atoms are in a different configuration. I am similar, but not the same. “I felt detached from my body” Amen.

    • Mark Liebenow on April 14, 2019 at 12:09 pm

      And the big questions for both of us, George, and actually for all of us is, Who will we be when the rearranging, the reconfigurating, the revisioning of us is done? In twenty years, will we look back and see two different people?

  3. Melody A. on April 13, 2019 at 9:53 pm

    At 5 years on 3/30 it still hits me in waves, I will feel so TIRED , and as others said above sometimes I just wish I was gone too. We lived so long together and grew from young saplings entwined with one another into a strong tree, that his dying has left the tree swaying, those first two years I had all kinds of maladies that were the direct result of grieving. Heart pain, joint pain, walking pneumonia several times, 4 months into it I
    got stopped by a cop for a tail light being out and then asked if I was awake as I had cried way too much that day. so it really does manifest itself physically. Thank you for writing this. take care.

    • Mark Liebenow on April 14, 2019 at 7:43 am

      The marriage vows often speak of two becoming one, not only that two separate lives come together to live life in common, but also that two people join their hearts and souls and minds together into a new creation. After a death, it is hard to figure out how to live as one person again, partially because we don’t want to. We want what we had. Even though we still feel our loved one’s presence with us, even though we know we are different because of their influence on us, there is still that hole inside us where they used to be. Does this hole ever get filled? I don’t know, but I’m still working on this.

  4. JoMae Spoelhof on April 12, 2019 at 12:53 pm

    Thanks Mark, Your pieces always touch a cord and are so well presented they are a joy to read.

    • Mark Liebenow on April 12, 2019 at 2:05 pm

      Thank you, JoMae. I appreciate your responses.

  5. Diane on April 12, 2019 at 11:18 am

    Hi Mark,
    I’m still numb after 5 1/2 years. What you say about being disconnected from your body and only being a spirit, resonates with me. I assume that may be why I haven’t taken very good care of my body, it feels superfluous. Besides, I have no wish to stay around any longer than I have to.
    You are fortunate that you had people to support you. I did not. No one brought me food, no one walked with me, no one hugged me like they meant it. I discovered who my real friends were.
    However, having survived everything unimaginable, nothing seems that impossible anymore, and I’m still here.

    • Mark Liebenow on April 12, 2019 at 2:08 pm

      Yes, you do discover who your true friends are, Diane, those who are willing to sit with you through the hard times. I only had a few people, but there were crucial, and some of them were friends of my wife and helped out not because of me, but because of her. And you are so right. Having survived this, nothing seems impossible to us anymore.

  6. Elizabeth Coplan on April 12, 2019 at 11:14 am

    Hi Mark: Elizabeth Coplan here. Once again you’ve nailed grief on its proverbial head. Ever since both my parents died my legs feel weak, leaden by the loss. I find if I start moving, the grief begins to leave my legs. But not always. I miss them each day.

    • Mark Liebenow on April 12, 2019 at 2:12 pm

      Thank you, Elizabeth. My physical lethargy was more of the why bother variety. It was hard to eat well, drink enough water (and that’s still a problem), and come home from work and exercise when that was the last thing I wanted to do. If the best of my life was over, why not slide into oblivion. Of course, I was in my 40s and it would have been a long slide. And boring. So I ate, drank, and got my rest until things began to turn back towards normal.

  7. Kathleen on April 12, 2019 at 10:24 am

    My entire body aches. My legs feel like anchors, my back and neck feel the strain of the weight of grief. It has been unrelenting,

    • Mark Liebenow on April 12, 2019 at 2:16 pm

      I have seen some sculptures, Kathleen, that depict the feelings you mention. I don’t know the name of the first one, but it is a wire metal person filled with rocks. Another is called Melancholy that has a large hole through the center of a person sitting on a bench hunched over. People who have not experienced grief do not know what we know, how heavy grief is, how hollow we feel, how every movement takes so much out of us that we just don’t want to move.

  8. Ellen on April 12, 2019 at 8:51 am

    Cold. Yes! I was always cold which was so unlike me. This is the first I’ve heard that this happened to someone else.

    I didn’t go to work today. My body felt like cement, felt like it was glued to the bed. I slept well but feel exhausted.

    • Mark Liebenow on April 12, 2019 at 10:41 am

      Even on an 80 degree day, I’d have on a winter coat and still felt cold. Listen to your body. It knows what you need. Drink water. Eat nutritious food. Get some exercise. Go to bed at the same time. Your body will bring you back.

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