When grief comes, sounds go mute, the world fills with shadows, and we feel cold all the time.
Some of us push grief away by working harder and longer. Some harden their hearts. Others try to hurry through grief’s darkness by reading self-help books and stuffing positive thoughts into their pockets. There comes a point, though, when we realize that ignoring grief isn’t working because we still feel broken and miserable.
Grief is a dark place because no one taught us what losing someone we love feels like. It is then that we stop trying to cover suffering over. As we let go of our ego that says we should be strong enough to handle this, we allow grief to guide us where it will and when it thinks we’re ready.
Many people feel uncomfortable in the darkness, even when they’re standing in the backyard watching the stars at midnight. It’s as if the darkness can’t be trusted because we think this is where vicious animals and malevolent spirits live. Grief feels like we’ve been dropped into the darkness of the wilderness because we see no familiar landmarks and we don’t know what lives here.
There is a long, dark night in grief’s journey when we don’t know what to do. It’s not the same as St. John’s dark night of the soul, although they can dovetail. We feel lost, unable to move, and with a lethargy that weighs our body down.
Everything we’ve known and trusted has failed to hold us up, and when the darkness of grief lingers longer than we think it should, and dawn does not come even though we keep looking at the horizon, we begin to worry that we’re headed into trouble.
In the stars overhead, we feel the presence of those throughout the centuries who have looked up at these stars and found words of hope. If other people could make it through this, then so can we.
But as we wait in the darkness, we begin to find solace. Grief will challenge our faith to its core, no matter what religious tradition we follow, especially if this is the first death of someone close. It will pull down our belief that if we are faithful, if we keep our part of the agreement, then life and God will return the favor, and we will be happy and never suffer.
Part of the darkness we feel comes from grief stripping away many of the illusions we have pasted over life to soften its harsh edges and enable us to endure without crumbling in despair when the evening news reports more death and destruction. Grief brings clarity of sight, and we awaken to the fact that suffering is going to be part of everyone’s life.
In the darkness, we find others who are grieving. As we share with them, community forms. We help each get through the day and find the courage to face our fears. Rather than trying to resurrect our old life out of the rubble of the past, we find the strength to begin creating a new one.
Mark Liebenow is the author of Mountains of Light, a book that details his hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death. He writes a weekly blog Widower’s Grief that explores the landscape of grief.