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Life, Death and Music

Life, Death and Music

There was something else on my mind until I learned about the Oklahoma tornado and the lives lost to it.

How do you deal with the death of a loved one?
The closest I have been to the passing of a loved one was when my Mom died. Although there had been time during her illness to anticipate that she might not survive, and though I was blessed to have family and friends around me for comfort, I couldn’t cry for a few weeks. Not until the day Mom’s ashes were scattered at sea. The Neptune Society provides this service, and there were perhaps twenty of us — several families — gathered at Shelter Island as the motor yacht with the remains of our loved ones cruised slowly by, then headed out of the harbor to the open ocean. That did it. I watched that boat until I couldn’t see it any more for my tears and when I couldn’t cry any more I watched until it disappeared beyond the horizon.
It took even longer for me to mourn the death of my friend who took his own life by self-immolation in the presence of his parents, wife and kids.
I had no rules for how to mourn, or grieve. I knew I was supposed to, but I didn’t know how. I’ve learned that some societies have such rules and that makes a lot of sense to me now that I’ve been at a loss for them. But at those two times, I held deeper sorrow in my body than I’d ever felt before, and I had to invent a way to experience it fully. I wasn’t able to do that right away.
It helps to have loved ones around you as you let go of your connections to one who has died…but they, too, may be in mourning. Shared grief is powerful, but it’s not your grief — your specific, unique connections to the one who has gone. My sister had a different relationship to Mom, and her experience of Mom’s passing was different than mine because of that. We both miss Mom in the thousands of ways Mom was privately special to each of us, and while the tears on each of our faces are the same, in each tear are the memories of a mother’s individual love for her daughter or for her son. Somehow each of us has to put our arms around our own grief — no one else can.
Losing a loved one suddenly can create a shared shock. We have seen this publicly when entire communities react to mass shootings, horrors of war, terrorist attacks. Coming together in this way helps us to open to grief: strangers brought to awareness of our shared humanity by a forceful, tragic intrusion. But what happens next, after the memorials and homilies, when we return to our homes that are empty of the presence of the one we mourn?
After the shock, after the funeral, after the long drive back home, what then?
David Whyte, a poet I admire, has written that, at the bottom of the well of grief, there is treasure (“The Well of Grief”). I believe he is correct: when I have really worked at grief, it has a certain reward. I do this by using music.
Music connect us safely and instantly to emotion — to feeling. I prefer to “find the bottom” of feelings such as grief rather than wallowing in it. And, when I have difficulty letting grief take me, music can ease me in to the journey.
Mom’s memorial had music — Amazing Grace — but I didn’t cry then. As beautiful as that music is, it didn’t open the safe place for me to really experience the loss and sorrow I was holding inside.
My friend’s memorial had music — I don’t remember what it was because I was still in shock at his suicide. It was only years later when I thought again of taking my own life that I came to terms with the music I needed to deeply feel the loss of my friend. It was a single piece of piano music I’ve played many times that came to mind me, and in it I finally managed to swim to the bottom of the well that held all the grief I had stored for my friend.
This takes time: time to be patient with one’s sorrow. I have great respect for the societies whose rules put mourning on a timeline, but that isn’t how I grieve. I have to wait for the right music — looking for the trigger, some might say — to release me into that safe place of utter loss. No sense shedding a tear here or there: I only want to go with the full desperate Monty and have done.

The bottom of that well came sooner with Mom than with my friend, and that was all right with me.

The point here is that there’s no hurrying this experience of grief — and there’s no point in just sweeping these feelings away for another day. Yes, it’s better (I think) if we can experience a kind of communal sorrow, and funerals are good for that, but the real impact of the passing of a loved one — for whatever reason — goes on for much longer. Even grieving fully doesn’t remove the melancholy of memories shared with the one who’s gone. There’s a kind of slow transformation from the piercing sharpness of loss to an emptiness that lives within us. My emptiness sometimes reminds me of happy moments with Mom, and sometimes trying ones, but it is never full the way it was while Mom was alive. It is the same with my friend: the way his son looks sometimes, or when I speak to his parents about him and their grand kids.

The beauty of such pain is that we are not alone. In my grief, I have a sense of belonging somehow to a tribe of strangers who also knew Mom, loved her, and miss her. Closer in, my Dad and I experience Mom’s passing in ways we can share, memories we can relive. My kids and I sometimes remember “GM” together in beautiful ways that keep her alive: my singer/songwriter daughter wrote and performed a song for Mom, shared with the family on YouTube. My son the lawyer keeps Mom’s memory alive in the way he chooses to show his compassion for animals, or when his eyes soften as he speaks of her. These little things are tributes to Mom. I share such things with my friend’s parents, too.

So as I think of Oklahoma, my own midwestern roots kick in and remind me that the ones who love each of the ones lost will mind their passing with shared grief, yes, but also with resilience — with the fortitude that keeps us strong, with the stiff upper lip I’ve come to know and accept about myself — with strength to rebuild and quiet honor to persevere in memory of those who died. May a beautiful song find each of us in our mourning to ease us gently through our loss, and may we share that music together as together we share our grief.


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