SONGS OF LOSS
A MUSICIAN'S JOURNEY
THROUGH DELAYED GRIEF
From the Murk
The Awakening of Ancient Trauma
2 / 7
Lurking in my past was a trauma, as well as deep feelings of vulnerability and abandonment, feelings so strong they threatened to blot out the joy and hope I had found. Music helped me look at those things squarely and find light in the darkest of times.
THERE IS A HIDDEN BEAUTY, ON EVEN THE GREYEST DAY
"Yet something else stuck, something beyond the joy and sadness of reconnecting, something more sinister."
Before, every time I looked at photos of my mum I could count to about ten before I started welling up. The knotted feeling ran so deep. No fond memories came back, not a shred of joy for her life and love. That was normality for me. I never questioned it - just the brief surfacing of the deep sadness that went with having lost my mother.
When delayed grief came, along with the sadness I had buried, I also started to unearth some of those beautiful and joyful memories of a happy childhood. I began to reconnect with her warmth and love as well as her joy for life and her bravery. I felt once more the encouragement and enthusiasm she had always shown me. I also began, naturally, to process the sadness at having lost such a wonderful mother with all the lost support, love, and encouragement that she would have given me at every stage of life.
These were huge emotions and they came in torrents which washed over me. But they were deeply cathartic. I had a real sense of the joy of feeling after so much suppression. Even when grief expressed itself like a crippling punch to the stomach, streaming tears and dry retching from the guts, there was still a cleansing pleasure in feeling – a triumph over non-feeling. It felt necessary, a movement in the right direction, the start of a twenty-year-delayed healing process.
Yet something else stuck, something beyond the joy and sadness of reconnecting, something more sinister. I couldn’t tell what at first. Whatever is was, however, began sucking the colour and meaning from life, leaving it disjointed, desolate and grey. Even the catharsis of feeling the loss soon faded.
As I began to piece childhood memories back together, a gaping hole began to emerge. I had begun thinking of my mother’s wishes for me and how she would have wanted us to remember her. Having been given six months to live, I reasoned, she must have had time to think about how to prepare us for a future without her.
There was nothing but an eerie silence to all these questions. She had never talked to us about her illness, and after her death, there was no letter, no memento, no sentiment to be passed on by someone close. When questioned, family members could add little more than generalities on what she would have wanted for us.
I circled around for weeks, as the grey clouds thickened, inching ever closer. I burst into tears watching a clip of a peregrine falcon valiantly protecting her young from five pelicans and a snake. A dream I had had months before her death of being shot in the stomach behind a boulder on a desolate desert battlefield, circled round my head.
One evening, I had been writing in my diary for some time when I finally wrote down on the page, “she dodged it.”
From the Murk starts from the lowest point. It was filmed in St Pancras Old Church in London which was built on a site whose spiritual importance can be traced back to pre-Christian times.
"Yet, she had always held it together for us with her considerable life’s energy and I remember nothing but a happy childhood."
THE DARKEST HOUR
That was devastating. There were no answers, nothing left behind for me, nothing to discover that would finally piece the puzzle together. To add to that, my trauma and suppression had started months before she died, in the deafening silence surrounding her illness, when she had been my sole caregiver. I was not just dealing with loss that could be blamed on cruel nature: I felt abandoned, and as difficult as it is to say, I also felt something akin to betrayal.
I could look at loss straight in the face, feel it and process it, but I could hardly stomach to catch a glimpse of abandonment and “betrayal.” They drained all of the loving warmth I had reconnected to, leaving a cold feeling of nothingness - the frozen lifelessness of Dante’s ninth layer of hell.
I was not dealing with the emotions of an adult, but that of a hurt seven-year-old. As soon as I, the adult, had written the words “she dodged it,” I had forgiven her one hundred-fold. In life, she had loved me dearly and had done her utmost to make my childhood happy. I can’t imagine the suffering she must have experienced after three bouts of cancer and knowing she would leave us behind so young. She didn't deserve any of that. And she was human after all, imperfect like us all, and no longer here to answer for herself or make things right.
But that emotionally damaged place within me, that frozen part of me that had harboured these feelings for twenty-five years, that part was not so easily swayed. That part would not listen to a single piece of the reasoned perspective I tried to persuade it with. Simultaneously, these ill feelings towards my mother only aroused further guilt. I was caught between, paralysed. I shied away as the gloom descended.
THE REASONED PERSPECTIVE
My mother was a tough and brave woman, loving, energetic, and with a thirst for life. She had beaten cancer twice already. She was, however, no saint, and looking back, her life even seems a bit chaotic. She was a divorced single mum; she certainly had her own struggles, and she had made mistakes.
Yet, she had always held it together for us with her considerable life’s energy and I remember nothing but a happy childhood. As cancer drained that energy away, however, I was left vulnerable and defenceless, ill-prepared for the torment ahead, and exposed to her worse decisions, including that of not coming to terms with her own mortality and preparing me for her own death.
As I later found out, she had been somewhat in denial of death. It began to make sense why I remembered her showing me the local secondary school months before she died, telling me that I would eventually go there, whilst not a word on moving up to Scotland with my Dad.
She had decided to go to Hawaii for two weeks a month before she died and hadn’t even wanted to take out health insurance. In her mind, she wasn’t going to die. In Hawaii, she suffered severe headaches after the plane journey on account of her tumour, and spent most of the time there in medical care. She completely deteriorated on the way back and had to go straight into hospital.
She was alive for another two weeks. I was taken to visit her only once in the hospital before she was bought back home unconscious to die. When I visited, she was so ill and weak. She was so very far away from me. She was promptly sick - a green vomit – and I was quickly escorted out in an effort to protect me from her decay. That’s the last time I saw her conscious. No hug, no touch, no I love yous, no goodbyes. Just unspoken fear and helplessness on both sides.
Of course, my mum didn’t betray or abandon me. She loved me deeply. The possibility of leaving us behind was most likely such a terrifying and horrific prospect that it was not an option for her; she needed to live to protect us. She was a beautiful, loving human, but flawed like us all. She was scared and without all the tools and answers, living in a society which seemed to have none either. She had a brain tumour, and her capacity for decision-making must have significantly diminished
"There were no answers, nothing left behind for me, nothing to discover that would finally piece the puzzle together."
near the end when nature finally caught up with her. At the same time, we lived in a culture unable to talk openly about death, and there just wasn’t the necessary support for her, the family, or for children in our situation.
I wonder just how much she suffered in the hospital and on our last visit, isolated, powerless, unable to protect and unable to communicate what she must have felt. She wanted to live so much, to be there for us and watch us grow, to keep our happy childhood unbroken.
THE LIMITS OF RATIONALITY
The rational doesn’t work. Especially not when you’re dealing with the emotions of a seven-year-old. A seven-year-old doesn’t understand parental fallibility or cultural deficiencies, least not in matters of life and death.
Not preparing me for the possibility of her own death left me exposed to deal with it on my own with wounds so obscured and deep that I would only discover them a quarter of a century later. The feeling was that she had abandoned me when she left for Hawaii. That she was so loving and such an amazing mother only went to make losing her harder and more traumatic.
You need to look at that absolute vulnerability and powerlessness, at that feeling of abandonment, at that feeling of betrayal, not reason it away. You need to look at the murky greyness and feel it. You can’t pretend it is not there without consequences. I hadn’t looked at it for twenty-five years and it had followed me around like a cloud over my head, surfacing in an inability to trust and form relationships, in disconnection from myself and my feelings, in an inability to let go and fully enjoy myself, in a tendency towards melancholy and in a lack of direction in life.
I’ll never quite know to what extent she was protecting me from her own illness and death, in denial or silenced by societal norms and lack of tools. Maybe she just couldn’t bring herself to disrupt the happy childhood she’d so lovingly created. I’ve also had to come to terms with the fact I’ll never know exactly what her wishes were for me, or why she left nothing. I won’t ever know how she would want me to think of and remember her. I’ve had to fill in the gaps.
My mother was ill my whole life, yet those seven years I spent with my her were the most wonderful years full of happiness, life and love which I wouldn’t change for the world. If anything has kept me going in the right direction all this time, it is what she managed to instil in me in those formative years. It’s such testament to her that my time with her was not completely overshadowed by her illness, that she always put her children first, that she managed to create a normal childhood for us. It was no doubt her refusal to accept her fate, her bravery in the face of re-occurring cancer, her strength and her love that kept her going and gave me those seven precious years the way they were.
And all that was there behind the massing clouds. There was a brightness and an energy there in me, a want to shine that light and carry her memory proudly into the world - if only it could break through.
As the negative feelings slowly subsided, the clouds began to part. The connections I had to her love and warmth began to reappear, and gradually, the damaged part of me moved toward acceptance and forgiveness.
I’ve worked through a lot of the anger and frustration, the feelings of powerlessness, vulnerability and abandonment. Recognising, allowing myself to feel, and then processing those emotions taught me a lot and has begun to free me from my own shackles.
"You need to look at that absolute vulnerability and powerlessness, at that feeling of abandonment, at that feeling of betrayal, not reason it away."
TURNING TO MUSIC
After two months engulfed in a grey murk with an underlying feeling of powerlessness and a residual anger, I realised I had to face those negative feelings head on – I needed a way out of that unbearable status-quo. With looking away from these emotions, I had even lost all desire to play or write music. I had to overcome a lot of internal resistance to start writing again, but I knew music would help me process those feelings which seemed to respond to little else.
I started experimenting with writing angry and frustrated music. But I couldn’t bring myself to compose the rough improvisations into pieces of music - it just never felt right. I longed for my drum-kit, with which I had channelled and dissipated any drop of anger throughout my teenager years and twenties. In a London flat, a Ghanaian drum had to suffice alongside taking up running to release the frustration.
The Dictator's Waltz was written to be played in front of a strong man dictator
Years before, I had explored vulnerability in music in a piece called The Dictator’s Waltz which became highly relevant to me once more. It was inspired by Maria Callas's devastating rendition the aria of the abandoned Cio-Cio-San in Madam Butterfly – a version that always brought me to tears. The Dictator’s Waltz was written to be played in front of a strong man dictator. It gives a place to vulnerability, takes control of it, and uses it as a weapon against cold-hearted oppression.
It was the pervading greyness that was calling me to write music. I began to write From the Murk. There is a sense in the music of how I felt at the time, of a watery gloom where nothing quite fits together (the melody is syncopated and in a different time signature to the chords). But there is still a sense of detached beauty, as if through a filter. The piece explores the waters, working through them, going deeper eventually working into a lonely rising melody line
Vulnerability in music: Maria Callas in Puccini's Madam Butterfly
– the sense of sadness and loss behind all the gloom. The second time round this melody rises and falls, not into the abyss, but into a seed of hope, which follows its path, growing and gathering momentum.
TAKING OWNERSHIP WITH MUSIC
We can use music to explore that place we least want to look at or the place where words and rationality just fail to reach. It can inch us closer to knowing what is there.
And by looking at it, feeling it and expressing it musically, we can nudge that area of ourselves forward allowing ourselves gradually to gain a little influence over these emotions which might otherwise be in control of us. Eventually, we can gain increased control and ownership.
"Music doesn’t change what happened or make those emotions disappear, but it can help us get a grip on and transform our relationship with that part of us that needs healing."
Music doesn’t change what happened or make those emotions disappear, but it can help us get a grip on and transform our relationship with that part of us that needs healing.
If you can let go, music might also show you the other side. I’ve always felt when writing that music is one step ahead of my rationally conscious mind: it shows me where I’m going, or at least what path I’m on. All I have to do is put my faith in it and follow honestly. I wrote From the Murk at one of the darkest points in my life, yet it feels like a beacon to me.
Working through the murk allowed me to reconnect to those seven years of incredible love and support that my mother gave me and which set me up so well to weather many a storm. It allowed me to connect to that buried part of me that wanted to shine out in the dark. That part was always there; I just didn’t know where to look before music showed me.
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THE NEXT INSTALMENTS
This is the 3rd video/single release in A Musician's Journey through Delayed Grief - a seven part musical and textual series by Douglas MacGregor exploring the connections between music, loss and healing arising from his personal experience of delayed grief twenty-five years after he lost his mother to cancer at the age of seven.
These are songs from the deep, meditations and manifestations of loss...and a hymn to hope in disguise.