Dark Nights: The Spiritual Promise of Grief Work

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Mary Kay LeFevour on how the courage to brave the darkness can help us find our essential selves.

Mary Kay LeFevour is a bereavement specialist with Tucson Medical Center Hospice. An ordained interfaith minister, a title she sought out specifically to qualify her to be a hospice chaplain, Mary Kay offers individual and group support for those who have lost family members. We spoke to her about the darkness of grief and its importance for healing.

It seems kind of obvious, but can you speak to the relationship between bereavement and darkness?

Grief work is very spiritual work. How do you spiritually survive losing a beloved? It’s the family members that are left after a death. Trust is the biggest thing that gets jettisoned. There’s the primary loss, of course. But the secondary loss can be a trust in the universe, God, the idea that life is beneficent.

So all those wonderful questions of spiritual inquiry come forward: Who am I now? Who is God? What’s my meaning in life? You’re now swimming in unchartered territory. For a lot of people this is the first time they’re having an existential crisis. You are in the dark night of the soul.

I’ve always loved dark. What’s wrong with the dark? As a Taoist and Buddhist, I know you can’t have one without the other. We are a society in America that denies death and denies grief. When someone experiences a death, society says, “Get over it. Just start consuming, start eating, buy something, find someone new.”

Mary Kay LeFevour
Mary Kay LeFevour

But this place of despair is a great cauldron to bubble in, to find your essential self. This is the time when I feel people are the most open to wisdom or beauty or reconnecting. They have to reinvent themselves. Some call it “post-traumatic growth.” It’s an opportunity for growth, for differentiation, for resilience, to become more of who you are or who you were. Because you have to.

Of course you don’t say any of this to the bereaved. You don’t say it’s all going to be okay, when they’re thinking, I’m lonely and I hate my life and what am I going to do? I just go, Yeah that sucks.

I might quote Victor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, who says we are happier humans when we have meaning. It doesn’t matter what the meaning is, whatever it is you have to create it. Some don’t like that because they believe there is one meaning and that they have to find it.

The trick is to let them swim in the despair or sink into the quicksand and hold that space. Sometimes you have to just let them sit in there. You can’t fix it. You can hold a branch, maybe, but people have to move through it. I just hold the grief and I don’t do anything but hold the grief.

How is night a significant time for those grieving?

I saw a guy this morning—77 years old, just lost his wife of 50 years. He said, “I’m okay.” He’s been grieving for almost a year. And he did sound pretty good. “I’m okay because I’ve got lots of stuff to do, he said. But it’s hardest at night, when I’m alone.”

People say the nighttime is the worst, the evening. It’s the time of intimacy, snuggling, having dinner, watching TV. That’s when you feel absence. Insomnia is most common presenting grief symptom. So night becomes the enemy, because we make it the enemy instead of the friend.

But mammals, when they’re hurt, find a dark cave and lick their wounds. It’s natural for us to want to go into a cave—it’s dark, we don’t want external stimuli. Bereavement work is not about giving people a spiritual bypass with distractions. They get that from friends and family. I’m the one person who lets them wallow. This is the tax we pay for being human.

Is grief “good” for us?

Grief isn’t good or bad. It is a human thing. Loss begins from the time we’re born. We lose this cozy place in the womb. Loss is inherent to our life as humans. My feeling is if you can’t avoid it, then what can you do with it?

Raven Design
On the weekends, Mary Kay decorates pottery made by her partner, Laura Markowitz. This design features a raven. “Ravens are my favorite bird–they are the messengers between the worlds.”

Grief takes away your artifice, every shred of dignity you’ve had and makes you this mass of vulnerability and also someone who’s open to a different way of living, one that makes sense. That’s what’s exciting to me about it. I get to be at somebody’s birth. You’ve lost and you have to be reborn. I feel like a midwife in that respect and it’s such an honor.

Sometimes you’re just hoping people don’t commit suicide before they get through the dark night. You hope and you hold and that’s all you can do. I don’t even have faith. I have knowing on my side. I’ve seen people go from being barely able to crawl into the room to having a full life again. I see it again and again. I can sit with you in the not knowing. I don’t know if you’re going to make it but I have seen the most desperate people make it.

What would you like to see in terms of our collective embrace of grief and darkness?

Rather than resist, through denial, the very thing that’s going to happen–which is that we’re going to die and we are going to lose things we love along the way and we are going to lose parts of ourselves–we can reclaim the night. We may never be able to embrace it wholeheartedly, but we can aim for it. We distract ourselves so we don’t have to pay attention to grief, mortality, death. And then we are unprepared when they come for us.

Many cultures have mourning ritutals–wearing the arm band, the day of the dead, putting a stone on the tombstone, sitting Shiva.  The ritual of mourning. But there are so many ways in which we no longer participate in the night. We look at is as something to get through, instead of something to enfold ourselves in.

Again, I’m not going to tell you this when you’re in the quicksand. I’m just going to hold you and tell you it’s okay to feel everything that you feel–angry, abandoned, miserable. All of that is welcome here. That’s what people need–a steady presence that radiates the idea that this is a cycle. This is a cycle. Life is a cycle. It’s going to be a roller coaster, but all things arise, develop, and fall away. All things. There’s no one thing in nature that doesn’t. And grief is that way. Because grief is part of nature.


Learn more about TMC’s Hospice program here.

Learn about SFA’s work documenting and sharing End of Life practices and access resources for bereavement services, here.

We covered the work of Tucson’s Death Cafe, bringing dignity to the dying, in Jan 2016, here.

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