Grief isn't all about sadness. If emotions are given voice they can open the door to all the good stuff that lies underneath. Unexpressed, unplaced, those emotions can harden into pain.
It feels like we're finally emerging from a dark winter. The last three weeks have been difficult for me, losing several friends and also commemorating anniversaries of the deaths of both my parents close together.
Last night in Frome, I was invited to attend a pilot for a kind of Death Café event - the first I have attended, which was designed as a test for future gatherings where a small group might get together to recall and honour the life and death of a loved one, celebrating them with a chosen piece of music. I'd only properly met one of those who attended and I don't think any of us really knew what we were letting ourselves in for - the extraordinary experience of being so deeply listened to, to be able to cry and open up and expose my own vulnerability in the company of others, feeling like I was laying myself bare in the process.
I chose my mother as my subject and took along photographs of her as my momento. Others were the epitome of random- a wooden owl, a drawing on a mobile that had just unexpectedly come to light, keys, a framed photo, a DVD. It was unusual experience for me, being given up to 20 minutes to speak, uninterrupted and follow my train of thought wherever it took me.
I had not prepared any preamble other than to give a little bit of background on the track I had chosen, 'Fly Me To The Moon' by Frank Sinatra. It was symbolic of an era - 1964 (even though the track had been written ten years earlier). Count Basie's big band backing and Quincy Jones' arrangement had morphed the tune from a waltz to a 4/4 swing. It has an exuberance and optimism, at a time when we were more concerned with looking outwards, at space travel and exploration and less tied up in knots about modern ills such as immigration clampdowns, backstops and customs unions. I'm sure there were major crises at the time but my cherished if rose tinted memories were of a world full of wonder and promise and my parents were at the centre of that, in love with each other (I'd never seen them argue once) and seemingly hopeful about the way the world was going in the ongoing "You've never had it so good" years that followed McMillan's iconic statement in the year I was born, 1957. It's also a fantastic love song.
Fly me to the moon
Let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like
On a-Jupiter and Mars
In other words, hold my hand
In other words, baby, kiss me
Fill my heart with song and
Let me sing forever more
You are all I long for
All I worship and adore
In other words, please be true
In other words, I love you
Fill my heart with song
Let me sing forever more
You are all I long for
All I worship and I adore
When surprised me most was the precision of the details that I randomly and spontaneously trawled up that I had completely forgotten, the guilt I felt on the dark early December afternoon day my mother collapsed and was taken to hospital, aged 43, after I had asked her to sew a button back on my jeans. That was the last time I saw her conscious as she fell going to the sewing tin. Within minutes, she was whisked away in an ambulance. She had suffered from a brain tumour all that year, though undiagnosed all that time despite numerous visits to doctors with headaches, sickness and vertigo. So it wasn't wholly unexpected.
During the interminable dark days of that 72-73 winter - almost two months of her being in hospital - my Father not only kept me away from the hospital "for my own good" but also from her funeral. Etiquette was strictly stiff-upper-lip in those days and as a result, I don't think I've ever had a real chance to grieve. My sister didn't want to talk about it and my best friend at the time squared up with me decades later, apologising profusely for not being able to offer me the support he knew I needed.
I've celebrated my mother many times, but in many respects, not allowed myself to truly grieve for her, for my 9 year old sister who was silently bearing the tragedy, and for that 15 year old who suddenly felt devastated and exposed with a lack of developed life tools to guide me and a father who was so forlorn that he not only abdicated all responsibility for most things around him but sold his thriving business and then tried to take his own life with a pills overdose five months later.
My choice of music and many of my memories were upbeat but as things progressed, we really did get into some deep territory and I found myself softening up by the minute. When one of the women sang so simply and beautifully about love, accompanied by the host on guitar, the damn burst. I grieved for myself, for Mum, for Dad, for my new friends who I'd suddenly become emotionally entangled with and - it felt - for the living world and the planet.
Another of our circle beautifully described that process - of being able to tap into a universal grief with the trigger of emotional music, in her case the wondrous Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble. I watched her dissolve in tears and realised what a wonderful gift we shared in being able to open up so publicly to that vulnerability, that sense of the fleeting, transitory nature of life. We are a but cork on the ocean, a leaf in the wind.
It felt as if my tears for humanity and the planet were somehow channelled through that direct grief for a parent from years ago and more recently, for a close friend whose daughter died through a rare illness and who I haven't seen for a while. I felt that a huge weight lifted. It was transitional, elevatory. A sacred experience.
If only the world could cry a little bit more often. If only politicians could cry in public! If only more people were able to allow music into the deeper recesses of their soul.
There's much more I could say about others' experiences but I won't for confidentiality's sake but here is an excerpt given with permission from one of our circle's private media post today :
I was just heading out the door to visit my friend who had invited me to a pilot event for a few people to gather and talk about grief from recent bereavements. Kind of like a Death Café, although I've never attended one...but this one was to be themed around music.
None of us really knew what to expect but there was a simple framework which held the space for a beautifully deep and lovely evening. Each person took it in turns to speak without comment or response from the others, about whatever aspect of grief or loss came up, the group fully listening to each person talk. We each brought a piece of music which connected us with our grief in some way. The music gave space for each person's words to sink in, the images and impressions of the stories told.
As we did our intros it quickly became clear that each of us had experienced much earlier grief that had never really been expressed well.. A theme emerged of not having had the space or rituals to process grief and loss. The cultural discomfort around how to 'handle' a grieving person, especially a bereaved child/teenager, can leave us isolated.
It also became clear that grief isn't all about sadness, and that the emotions in themselves all indicate some much deeper feelings of love. If those emotions are given space and voice they can open the door to all the good stuff that lies underneath. Unexpressed, unplaced, those emotions can harden into pain.
Music has incredible power to help unlock that.
We've decided to continue to meet as there are so many layers, and there was a definite feeling of finding the joy within grief, the relief in expressing..the sweetness in tears for loved ones lost. I've a feeling that this is the start of a much wider offering.
Another said to the group afterwards "It has unlocked a little dark frozen part of me that is full of tears that need to flow. Bring on the grief I say"
It was a very cathartic experience and deeply moving on many levels and I would, without reservation, recommend it to anyone who retains unprocessed grief. To grieve is not a weakness, to deny it is to do ourselves a major disservice and to do this kind of ritual via music and words is resonant in a way that I could not have possibly predicted.
I'm still processing it all but I would definitely say that this is the start of something...Grief Music.