The death of a loved one hits us hard, like a tornado that uproots, a forest fire that burns through, a tsunami that sweeps everything away, leaving the land barren and broken. We are thrown into a great darkness that feels void of everything we’ve trusted and loved.

Our impulse is to turn away from death, turn away from the darkness it brings, and turn away from pain. But the only way to deal with grief is to go through, to embrace the pain and enter the darkness.

In the darkness, we are away from distractions and our life calms into a singular presence. We feel the extent of death’s devastation, but we also discover what we need to do. Slowly we unravel the trauma and deal with our anger, despair, and loneliness.

Although we fear what lives in the darkness, it is better to sit there in the quietness than settle for the easy answers from well-meaning friends that dissipate after a few hours and leave us feeling more alone. Pain tells us where we are broken. Grief is our guide.

"The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned." - Maya Angelou

The darkness is where artists choose to live because they can create something new from the broken elements of the universe. Here there are no boundaries, no guidelines, and no limitations on what is possible. The darkness is where we begin to create our new lives. We become artists in grief’s darkness.

The darkness forces us to search for the sliver of light that survives in the rubble of our hearts.

When my beloved died, I went to Yosemite and sat by myself in the darkness at the top of Glacier Point. I stared at the constellations of the night sky, trying not to think about the bears and mountain lions that lived in the wilderness around me. The world I loved had abruptly ended.

In the darkness I watched the stars travel through the depths of the cosmos. In the valley a mile below, I saw the glowing fires of people who were camping.

I existed in the place between the living and the dead and knew that I had to find a new world to live, or continue to drift in the uneasy comfort of meaningless space. I decided to face my fears of the unknown, step into the dark forest, and find my way through: through the darkness, where the light is rooted.


Mark Liebenow’s work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and named a notable essay by Best American Essays 2012. His account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with grief, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press.

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