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Mark Liebenow

Compassion, death, Grief, Guest Posts

Out of Death, Something

November 22, 2015

By Mark Liebenow

In late April we gather our dead and cry. For some it has been a year since our lives were ripped apart, for others barely a month. Emotions are on edge.

We are the families of those who died and donated their organs, and we have gathered at Chabot College in Northern California to honor our loved ones. My mother-in-law Marjorie has come with me. She is doing better after burying Evelyn, her youngest child and my wife, and is back to running the office of her retirement community.

I think of Tom Hanks in the movie Cast Away. He went to college here at Chabot, and there is a life-sized cutout of him in the lobby. He plays a man who struggles to survive physically and emotionally after his plane crashes in the Pacific Ocean. In one scene, before learning how to make a fire, he eats a raw, gelatinous fish. The look in his eyes as he chews is of a person wondering what’s the point when it’s unlikely he will ever be rescued. I know that look. When he gets back home years later, his wife has remarried, so he begins a new life with what he has left. I sense he will be happy, and wish that life was like it is in the movies.

Reg Green is the main speaker and talks about the desperate need for organ donations. The wife of my friend John was one of those who died waiting. In 1994, robbers killed Green’s seven-year-old son, Nicholas, when the family was vacationing in Italy. He and his wife donated their son’s organs to seven Italians. Because of their selfless act, the organ transplant movement finally took hold in that country. Donations doubled and thousands of people are alive because of them. A movie was made about it, Nicholas’ Gift, which starred Alan Bates and Jamie Lee Curtis. “Each year in the U.S.,” Green says, illustrating how often even the very young die, “five thousand families donate the organs of a child.”

After his speech, the smiling face of each donor in a time of happiness fills the large theater screen, and a hush settles over us. Music fills the auditorium as image after image bring back the childhood joy of Danielle, age fifteen, red bandana on her head; Dexter, two years old; forty-eight-year-old Bill with a Fu Manchu moustache; Maribel, a young mother dead at twenty-six; three-year-old Eddrick in his new sweater; nine-month-old Alexandre in knitted cap; and the photos and names of one hundred and forty others, including Evelyn’s, her face shining with hope.

Ev died in her forties of an unknown heart problem, and I think of the dreams we had for our future that now lie in ruins. In the memorial booklet I read the words I wrote that begin: “Evelyn’s soul was sweet like dawn in the Sierra Nevada. She was intoxicating like alpine air. The light in her eyes illuminated the dark paths through the forest of my heart….” Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Hearing the Unheard in Grief

July 1, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88by Mark Liebenow

If you lose a chunk, or all, of your hearing, the world radically changes. You don’t relate to people in the same way. You may not be able to hear the chatter of birds, the scuffling of leaves in the breeze, or the purring of your cats. There’s a constant vulnerability, a distancing from people, a hesitancy to interact.

Ditto with grief.

The loss of hearing has similarities with losing someone you love. They’re both forever, and both are significant losses. The far greater loss is death, of course, and I’ll try not to push the comparisons too far.

Hearing loss is invisible. You can’t tell until you get close to me and see the hearing aids. Then you tend to stare at them. And I notice.

Grief is largely invisible, too. Until you get close, I seem fine. Then you notice the residue of tears on my cheek and the redness of my eyes. When I talk about grief, you tend to look away. And I notice.

At night we take out our hearing aids and the world goes silent.

With a spouse who has died, the house is always silent.

In a crowded room, the hard of hearing have trouble understanding because aids amplify every sound. The cacophony becomes too much, and we want to find a quieter place.

The grieving have trouble coping with the bustle and noise of crowds, especially if we are introverts. Crowds deplete us of energy, and we seek a quieter place.

When your beloved whispers sweet nothings into your ear in bed, you hear nothing because you can’t hear whispers.

With grief, there is no one whispering.

Every day we are reminded of our loss of hearing in countless ways.

Every day we miss our loved ones when we think of something we want to share with them, when we have a question only they can answer, when we see one of their prized possessions, when we hear certain songs or drive by our favorite restaurants.

If you’re hard of hearing, you read lips at least a little to help interpret the verbal sounds you partially hear.

In grief, you read eyes to interpret what people are saying, to determine if they are trying to be helpful or are only being polite and would rather be somewhere, anywhere, else.

If you grieve and have a loss of hearing, this compounds matters. Imagine that we’re sitting in a busy coffee shop and you’re trying to console me by talking quietly so that others don’t overhear. Well, I can’t hear, either.

We already feel partial for not being able to hear clearly. Now we also feel broken by death. And if our hearing suddenly dropped for no reason when we were in our teens, like mine did, then we have probably learned to be quiet in groups and stay on the side of conversations, even though we’re dying to share our witty retorts. We don’t hear well enough to be confident that we know what conversations are about, and by the time we’re sure, the conversation has moved on to something else.

If your spouse has died, not only have you lost someone you love, you may have also lost “love,” feeling that no one else will want to put up with your hearing loss.

It’s not always easy to live with a hard of hearing person, because you have to repeat things. It can also be funny. Sometimes I mishear the words, think it’s a creative way of saying something, and use it in my writing.

Whether it’s a hearing loss or grief, if you are in front of me, all I ask is that you not jump to conclusions. Continue Reading…

death, Grief, Guest Posts

One Breath Out

May 17, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Mark Liebenow

Grief is selfish, and it needs to be.

When death hit and my life exploded, I scrambled to save all the pieces before they were lost. I had to be selfish with my time because no one else knew what to say for someone who died suddenly in her forties. I had to do it myself, and it took all my energy to get up, go to work, make something for dinner, and endure the long nights without my wife.

As I learned grief’s ways, there came a time down the road when I began to see the world again. I noticed other people who were grieving, and felt the desire to use what I was learning to help them.

In Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart, she mentions a one-breath-out meditation in several places. The first time she does, she speaks of the willingness to die in the time after exhalation before inhalation begins, and calls it a little death.

This reminds me of something I experienced in the days right after Evelyn died. I would breathe out and not want to breathe in again. Then my body’s reflexes kicked in and dragged me back. I’m not saying I wanted to die, although I would have been perfectly happy doing so because living without Evelyn was too painful. There was just something in that moment when I was emptied of breath that I think ties into what Chodron is saying. I noticed that in that brief moment I felt balanced and at peace. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Madonnas.

January 6, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black

By Mark Liebenow.

I can’t take the damn lethargy today, and rather than drag around the house on my day off grieving my wife, and feeling bone-assed sorry for myself, I try something new. I haven’t done anything new since she died nine months ago.

Driving to Lake Merritt in Oakland, I sit on a bench, and give myself permission to enjoy the warm sunshine. I still feel guilty if I enjoy anything that Evelyn no longer can, like I’m betraying her by not wearing hair shirts and eating gruel. It sounds illogical, but not much makes sense when someone you loved with all your being is ripped away. She was only in her forties.

Evelyn used to come here on her lunch breaks, and being here helps me feel close to her. Normally Northern California is rainy and cold in early January, but today the sun is out and it’s in the seventies. I lean back and watch the world stroll by in its urban variety, and remember how it feels to smile.

Two young boys chase each other around the palm trees, playing hooky from school. An older man dances as he jogs along to music on his iPod. A woman in a black and yellow dashiki walks by looking proud, and several mothers with young children point out the palm trees, seagulls, and the mallard ducks. The mothers remind me of Ev’s compassion. Although we had no children, she took care of her friends like a mother — sending notes of encouragement when they didn’t get the job they wanted, talking to them on the phone late at night when they were depressed, and going to console them when a parent died.

writing-course_pageheader_825x200_alt2 Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, Kindness

Grief Walkers.

December 30, 2014

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black

By Mark Liebenow.

There is a deep need for kindness in the world, especially for those who are grieving.

This is not the kindness I first knew, which was really politeness or good manners — asking how you are and expecting you to say something positive, or holding the door open for you to go through. I am speaking of the deeper kindness that comes from concern for someone and responds to that person’s need, what comes from the heart. I am speaking of love unbidden that demands nothing of the one it is offered to, love that seeks only to help the one who stands in front of me. It asks, then listens when the hard stuff spills out, and it stays around to help with the other person’s struggles.

It is also the kindness of how I treat myself. When I grieve, when I feel defeated and unworthy of being loved, when I feel guilty for enjoying life again when my wife no longer can because she’s dead, it’s kindness for myself that is able to reach through my sorrow. It’s kindness for myself that allows me to care about others again.

Until grief placed me on a mountain of solitude, and I saw nothing but burnt earth and ashes around me, I did not understand the power of your hand reaching down to help me up.

Continue Reading…

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