Rearranging the symbols of the past
7 / 7
The last thing my mother gave me before she died was a guitar. That instrument saw me through the toughest of times and pointed the way to a new life post grief.
SONGS OF LOSS
A MUSICIAN'S JOURNEY
THROUGH DELAYED GRIEF
Each memory seemed to stand for something, to be an important symbol of that time that had been frozen and locked away for over two decades.
The little guitar
The last present my mother gave me was a small guitar. For some time, I’d been dropping hints by making guitars out of paper and running around pretending to be Bruce Springsteen. When I got the real thing, I was far too excited to bother learning how to play properly despite my mother’s efforts. I was solely intent only on playing Born in the USA content with any random notes that my fingers fell on.
She gave me that guitar on my seventh birthday and she died just over a month later. After she died when I moved up to Scotland, I forgot how much the guitar had excited me and didn’t touch the little instrument. It just sat up in my room gathering dust while the strings began to snap.
The symbols of the past
When I came to grief, many memories and objects of my childhood came kept popping up and circling around my head. There was that little guitar, a red jumper I had always worn, my Lego pirate ship, my old school, the old house with the willow tree in the garden. Also, there were the tragic events like the last night my mother was alive, when I visited her in hospital, her trip to Hawaii, her funeral and the death of our dog.
Each memory or object seemed to stand for something, to be an important symbol of that time that had been frozen and locked away for over two decades. However, as the memories started to thaw, I had little idea of what the meaning was behind each one. I felt numb about some, like the trip to Hawaii, while others became emotionally supercharged with a confusing knot of contradictory feelings.
As I moved through grief and explored what arose, I became able to sit with the feelings and then decipher the meaning each memory or symbol had to me. The red jumper, for example, signified all my mother’s considerable care for me. The pirate ship was my lost enthusiasm and interests. My old school, where I had once fitted in, suggested an unlived future in a place I thrived. The old cottage and its surroundings were my lost garden of Eden.
On the darker side, the death of our dog was a foreshadowing of my mother’s own death. Her trip to Hawaii seemed to be the moment I lost her. The last visit to the hospital epitomised my lack of control, the gulf that had formed between me and my mother, and my feeling of emotional abandonment.
Me months before my mother died
New Beginnings was recorded in The Old Church, Stoke Newington, a former church not far from where I now live which is now run as a community and arts space.
"I felt at that moment that I had reached the bottom of the ocean and that there was nothing more hiding in the depths."
Reaching the bottom
I have one odd memory of going down South with my Dad, perhaps a year after my mother’s death, and stopping off at the old next-door neighbours’ right next to our old cottage. The memory contains no recollection of their son, who I had always played with. I just remember watching a VHS of the original 1934 Treasure Island that I had brought with me. Yet, this memory was somehow incredibly emotionally potent.
I was about nine months into grief when it became clear what this memory stood for. Lying on my bed I visualised myself sitting in the neighbour’s house watching Treasure Island in front of me, but my mind kept switching to what was behind me. In the next-door neighbours’ house, I was in the fields where I grew up, I was a stone’s throw away from my old cottage. I was in the setting of all my childhood happiness, and the eventual tragedy and every single place, object and person there pointed to that.
It became clear that I was watching the pirates to block out all the memories behind me. The weight of those suppressed events dammed up in a huge lake, must have been enormous as I watched the black and white sailors climbing the rigging. This was a memory of the biggest test of my suppression and of the dam that I had constructed.
Yet, I then realised that the memories were no longer all behind me. I had dug them all up, I was aware of them and now they all lay in front of me. I felt at that moment that I had reached the bottom of the ocean and that there was nothing more hiding in the depths. I already had all the pieces of the puzzle.
This was a new beginning, it was the end of suppression and the chance to start a new emotionally awoke life. I went for a walk that evening half expecting to see the world in very different light. It did not. Perhaps the revelation was only the conscious realisation of what was already in motion.
I did, however, soon become aware of the fragility of my new state. I was aware of my emotions, but far from in control. I was like a tiny seedling in a large forest constantly in danger as my roots sought to establish.
In fact, my new beginning was just one of many. There was no one big turning point, no single moment of conquering the past and moving on. Grief sucked me back down many a time as my new-found hopeful outlook got knocked about by circumstance. I had to reset myself on my feet countless times. But each time I was a little stronger than the last as I came to terms with all the memories and arranged them ever more constructively in my head.
Me and my mother at my christening
"This was a memory of the biggest test of my suppression"
"my new beginning was just one of many. There was no one big turning point, no single moment of conquering the past and moving on."
Re-arranging the symbols of the past
At first, I had experienced the preserved meaning and emotions of those past memories and events as a seven-year-old. But soon the meaning and emotion of the memories began to shift. Each time I bought up a memory, I also experienced it as an adult. Each time the memory was laid to rest again, it had changed slightly being accompanied by an adult perspective.
There was an active element to this process as well. As I re-experienced, I could direct the perception of the memory slightly. By holding on to certain perspectives and actively engaging cathartic or constructive patterns of thought, I constantly nudged the memories in a direction that seemed most fitting and healing for me. As I approached a place I felt at peace with, the meaning began to solidify rearranged in my psyche.
As much as I could, I kept the positive memories and symbols with me, even finding energy for myself through them. With the negative side, a fresh adult perspective sometimes disarmed some the memories, while others, which remained hurtful, became markers of what I wished to change in my life.
The countryside around the old cottage, for example, ceased to be a tragically lost garden of Eden but, with music, became my way of thinking about and connecting to my mother and childhood there. I see the last hospital visit now not as an abandoned child, but as an understanding adult would. On the other hand, the lack of emotional communication around my mother’s death is something I wish to firmly navigate away from in my own life.
"As I approached a place I felt at peace with, the meaning began to solidify rearranged in my psyche."
Rearranging the music
Naturally, music was essential in helping me rearrange my relationship to my past. Indeed, music did most of the leg work long before I could even attempt to put those feelings into words.
Me in my pram outside the old cottage
Each of the seven pieces of music from this series distilled the convoluted emotional experience arising from multiple events over time that went to make one of my ‘responses’ to grief. The music brought these previously supressed ‘responses’ to day light and allowed their full expression, taming the painfully raw into a manageable musical form.
While playing, music is beyond a symbol; music is those emotions. Each piece became a living, breathing manifestation of that deep and complex emotional nexus that made up a ‘response’. What’s more, music, as a dynamic form, can be directed. So when I move the music in a certain direction the very real emotional state that gives rise to that music is also directed that way.
In writing or improvising a piece, although it has to follow a genuine emotional logic to be successful, there is room to steer the emotional undercurrent, to channel it, sooth it or lead it to somewhere new. While composing these pieces, I always found my way - not necessarily purposefully - to that cathartic or healing element, or to a light at the end of the tunnel.
And, as I played the pieces over time, they conditioned and became my natural emotional response to cues of grief. Firstly, my emotions had given rise to the music and had informed the path of the music. Then in turn, while playing the pieces my emotions would follow the healing pattern composed within in the music. Repeated playing engrained that emotionally constructive and healing response to those initially tumultuous emotions.
In that way, I conditioned my emotional reaction to grief through music. These responses are now pillars of who I am and how I’ve chosen to connect with the past, remember, and live with that past into the future. Music helped me make sense of my grief, it allowed me to create meaning out of it.
"Each piece became a living, breathing manifestation of that deep and complex emotional nexus that made up a ‘response’."
"A new beginning is not moving on from the traumatic past by leaving it behind."
A new beginning
A new beginning is not moving on from the traumatic past by leaving it behind. It is rearranging events of the past in the present, taming the trauma and reordering one’s relationship to those events as best as possible. Your relationship to the past may then form a foundation, below the surface but ever supporting you as you move forward in life.
The pillar of my mother and my early childhood had crumbled and collapsed, crippling a part of my personality and keeping me back in life. However imperfectly I’ve rebuilt that pillar, with music being crucial to that reconstruction. It now supports who I am as time resumed its course after grief and I move forward in life free from shackles of unprocessed loss.
I’ve heard it said, that you might find the key for healing in the abyss, at the darkest point of your journey. The idea for New Beginnings was a little seed I found and planted at the furthest point into my grief, only to come back later to recognise what it was.
When I came up with the idea of New Beginnings – then only an abstract sketch of the second half of the piece - I roughly recorded it with my computer microphone and subsequently completely forgot about it. Months later, in need of a final piece for this series, I rediscovered the piece while trawling through my computer. It was instantly clear that this was it.
As I finished writing the piece, I started to incorporate themes and patterns from the first six pieces, rearranging them into the new music. For me, New Beginnings is the piece that finally stops looking inward, as all other pieces from the series did, and starts to look outward at the world. But it looks outwardly informed and supported by musical themes from all those pieces that helped firmly reconstruct a healthier inner world.
I play the beginning of the piece as though with the fragility of a seedling slowly gradually unfurling. New Beginnings, after some struggles, then reaches what to me is a brief glimpse of a transcendent moment beyond the struggles, a fleeting instant where everything aligns, where I am filled with the thrill of being alive and everything appears in new light.
During my many new beginnings when I have felt that I was starting over again only to be sucked back into emotional turmoil, playing this piece was of great comfort. It kept pointing towards hope, despite all the knocks, blows and drawbacks one inevitably faces trying to start over after such an ordeal. The piece showed me the other side, that there was a new life beyond grief.
Rediscovering the guitar
Recording New Beginnings - I use a flamenco tremolo which can sound as fragile as it can powerful
It was only five years after my mum died that my interest in the guitar gradually emerged again as I started to get friends to show me chords to Oasis and Nirvana songs. It wasn’t until I was fourteen that I worked up the courage to ask for lessons and then got given my own full-sized electric guitar.
"I like to think, perhaps wishfully, that on some level she gave me that guitar knowingly, not only to indulge my enthusiasm, but also to be my staff in the hard times to come."
Even then the drums were my primary instrument until my mid-twenties; the guitar was a sort of furtive personal passion that I indulged in private. While the drums were social and expelled all my frustrations, the guitar was my personal world. In the guitar, I found a space for a delicate and fragile intimacy I did not allow myself elsewhere. My constant urge to create lead to hundreds of tunes that no one but me would hear.
I always told myself I was making art for art’s sake, but in truth creation was highly therapeutic. When times were tough, without exception I would turn to my guitar. It was a space that awoke and channelled complex, contradictory emotions and allowed me to come to terms with them. I always found catharsis and meaning through music; often music felt like the only meaningful pursuit.
Me on the piano - there are no pictures of me
with my guitar unfortunately
The guitar eased my surpassed burden of grief, providing an outlet long before I realised it was there. Music always led me towards grief as my writing circling ever in on it. And when grief came, the guitar led me through it, allowing me to deeply know, feel and navigate my emotional states and find the other side. The instrument also allowed me to reconnect with my mother through music, to feel her presence and love once more.
A guitar, the last present my mother gave me, has been my saviour in her tragic absence. Although she was in denial of her mortality, I like to think, perhaps wishfully, that on some level she gave me that guitar knowingly, not only to indulge my enthusiasm, but also to be my staff in the hard times to come.
A final word on music, healing and faith
On a day to day basis, perhaps what helped me through grief the most was taking up running. In fact, if you were to ask me for advice to see you through grief, the balancing endorphin release of doing regular exercise would be near the top of the list.
"I put all my faith in music."
Music, however, allowed me to go deep and experience fully and I’ve no doubt that this is what made healing effective in the long run. Music is not the easy path. In the short run, it can even make things worse by suddenly awaking difficult emotions that may not easily return to their box.
I’ll only suggest one other key to healing from grief, whether one uses music or not, and that is faith. I don’t mean religious faith, although I’m pretty sure that could have the same effect. In grief, faith may be a simple belief that you will get through to the other side, that you trust that you can heal in time and start anew.
Your beliefs and perceived destination have a huge impact on the present. If you do believe that the mechanism of the mind combined with your own agency will lead you to healing and a new beginning, it most likely will. If you pig-headily believe, you’re almost sure to reach the other side.
I put all my faith in music, believing that music would show me the way if I followed it honestly. Although I am imperfectly healed, still suffer occasional bouts of grief and emotional instability, still struggle with my identity and my commitment to any direction in life, I am in a far healthier mind-set than before, I am content with life and have grown exponentially through the process of grief. I am roughly where I wanted to be and it appears my faith in music and the innate healing capacity of the mind has paid off.
Me in the fields opposite the cottage where I used to go on walks with my mother
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This is the seventh 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.