SONGS OF LOSS
A MUSICIAN'S JOURNEY
THROUGH DELAYED GRIEF
Songs for Lost Childhood
The Loss of a Whole World
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It wasn’t just the loss of my mum, but also of place, identity and friends - a whole way of life. Looking away from the loss only made it compound over time. Music can help us with the difficult and necessary task of just sitting with our losses and acknowledge them.
Me (back row centre) with my friends at School just days after my mum died
Just after my mother died and it was decided that I’d move up to Scotland to my Dad’s, the school I was at decided to make me a farewell book. They took photos of me with all my friends and teachers, photographed the school and put it all in a yellow book in which my friends wrote messages of farewell. What’s striking is that I look so happy in those photos in amongst my friends, just days after my mum had died. School with all my friends was the one place of continuity and normality in a world that had just been turned upside-down. But that was not to last either.
We’re not accustomed to talking about our losses. We don’t want to burden others. It’s considered taboo, even self-indulgent. Perhaps we’ll blight other people’s days by offloading our woes. Maybe they won’t know how to handle it and we should protect them from our experience. And in any case, what good could come of bringing it up?
Or maybe it’s me who doesn’t know how to handle talking about it? Maybe I’m trying to protect myself? Far more polite, safer, to bare your own load atomised in silence. Besides, there are plenty of people who have lost and suffered more.
And what does it mean to say you have lost?
I lost my mum.
I lost a whole way of life.
Lost? We use the same word when we can’t find a set of keys. I could alternatively say: my mother died, virtually all ties were cut with my former life and nothing was the same again. But still, the words convey nothing of that experience. It feels futile to put all that loss into words. They will never do it justice.
Today I passed primary school children playing a football match, their parents cheering them on from the side. I had to hold back the tears. It’s still raw. I’m still feeling that loss.
But that’s now. For so long my losses were hidden even from me. I might have even been slightly disdainful of the over-enthusiastic parents - it’s a good idea to watch carefully what irritates you.
Before, I was occasionally asked about my mother and what it was like to have lost her so young. I would be quite happy to talk about it with a few tried and tested themes on the subject. I’d be genuine in my response that elaborated along the lines of, “it was, of course, difficult, but I’m fine now”.
It was about a year and a half after her death when I was eight years old that I came to the conclusion alone in bed one night that she would have wanted me to go on. I used to think that that was the moment I dealt with everything and moved forward. So, when people asked, I could genuinely reply as if it was something put to rest, a sad and cruel twist of fate that I had got over.
I never knew how much I’d lost. I never looked at it in the face. It was all too much to bare. I didn’t know how to accept that loss or where to put all the pain if I did. I carried it unaware, hidden within me. Only occasionally, did it find some sort of release through music.
I lived with my mum in a small cottage in rural Cambridgeshire in what now feels like an idyllic childhood. I recall her complaining about money at times, but that meant little to me with all the love, care, affection, encouragement, boundaries and support I needed. We had a dog. I was popular at my local school and had plenty of friends. I was the fastest kid in my year. There was even a girl who I used to kiss at the back of class. I was a happy kid, growing in confidence with a no doubt bright future ahead of me.
When my mother died I lost it all. I lost my mother, my beautiful loving mother. I lost my school. I lost my friends. I lost my identity and social place. I lost the house I lived in. I lost the land I grew up in and all the places I knew. I lost an untold future, an unfolding life in those places and with those people. I lost my childhood innocence. I lost my trust in the world and confidence in myself. Even the dog, which could have come to Scotland, ominously died a few months before my mum, hit by a car.
The loss is incalculable. I think it no exaggeration to say I lost a whole world, virtually everything I knew and loved.
Hardly a trace came up to Scotland: a few toys, clothes, books and some furniture. It was an almost clean cut. No one talked about the past and, soon, all traces of that life faded. I shut it out, too. It was probably too painful to think about. Only occasionally would I look longingly at my past life in the yellow book.
I had a room halfway up the stairs for the first 6 months in Scotland. I shudder when I think of it. It seems so black inside. It’s haunted by werewolves who would reach me first when coming up the stairs. I experienced trauma in that room, I can’t tell you exactly what, but it’s black as the night in there.
I hated my first school in Scotland. I didn’t fit in. I was no longer the fastest. I didn’t work. I fought every break time. I was bullied about my English accent and told even by the teachers that I miss-pronounced words.
And I had no friends their either. I was unable to make friends until after a good two years and a change of school. It was such a stark difference from the yellow book and its messages of love and sadness at my departure. In Scotland, if I told other kids of my past popularity, they would laugh. So I kept those things to myself.
The yellow book. Looks like I read it again aged 9...
I used to love rugby. I supported the English team and my England rugby shirt was my pride and joy. I wore it when I came to Scotland, but got teased at home and at school until I switched my support to Scotland. The top I loved was replaced by a Scottish one, which I grew also to love, but with it went another thread to my past life and identity.
It’s difficult to put your finger on just how important sense of place is. Children can develop such deep bonds to the places they grow up in. The landscape and buildings are containers for untold numbers of forgotten memories and deep connections. I was cut off from where I grew up. That somehow cut me off from myself. I’ve never again developed a deep connection to place. It’s only now, when I go back to where I lived in Cambridge that I notice the whole place speaking to me in an language that I no longer understand.
And I lost my mum. The single most important relationship in a human’s life. And she was a great one, too. I lost all her maternal love and support. And because I never grieved, I shut myself off from her completely, never finding a way to carry her love and memory forward with me.
In Scotland, my Dad had a live-in lady to help with us at the start. I remember these frightful baths with this cold woman who didn’t show any warmth. My dad did his best to create a new life and materially took care of us but he came from an emotionally austere Scottish upbringing himself. He wasn’t able to communicate emotionally to a hurt child. He just didn’t have the tools or emotional understanding - emotional openness was just something that his culture didn’t do.
I had no maternal care from that moment on, no emotional upbringing. Emotions became dangerous liabilities. I had to cut off to cope. I stopped talking about anything that could cause emotional upset and receded into myself.
I went from a popular and adventurous kid, to an unpopular and withdrawn one. I recovered somewhat over time, but never entirely. I learned to protect myself by concealing myself and by adapting myself to fit in with others. And through concealing myself, I lost track of who I was. Part of me was buried beneath layer after layer of defence.
Not processing my losses, meant I never knew what had hit me. I knew only that the rug could be pulled out at any time and I understood well just how devastating that could be.
Our old house in Cambridgeshire
I knew that my dearest relationships could vanish in a flash and that I could be left to deal with the emotional turmoil on my own. With that knowledge and with no tools to navigate such events, came the loss of trust in myself, in society and in the fabric of being – it just couldn’t be trusted. I had no guidance and there were always unknowable dangers lurking.
I lost direction. I lost bravery, ambition and belief in the future. I lost self-confidence and a sense of who I was. I’m still trying to regain those things.
LOSS THROUGH TIME
You don’t just lose someone once. You’ve lost them at every onward moment in your life. From seven, I had no maternal care, love and support. Gone were all the hugs, kisses, kind-words, support, pride, encouragement and protection as well as the tellings-off, the inevitable teenage friction and all that motherly worry I saw other children get so irritated by. Every subsequent big day, birthday, Christmas, triumph, success, disappointment, failure or harsh lesson concealed a conspicuous absence for me.
By my early twenties I’d stopped marking my birthday. I didn’t celebrate my A-levels, my driving test or graduating university. I stopped feeling joy in or putting any stock in my achievements. In not acknowledging my loss, my successes became disappointments. The only thing I felt pride in was music and I kept that mostly to myself.
I never went through the same development as others. I felt stuck and inhibited. Social experimentation and making myself healthily vulnerable were things I was virtually incapable of. I didn’t do proper teenage rebellion years. I didn’t experiment with fashion or develop a sense of style. I didn’t set out enthusiastically to work out how to court the opposite sex. When it came to direction in life, I took no control: I fell into things, making negative and deductive decisions. I’ve always known what I don’t want, not what I do. It’s uninspiring stuff.
My experimentation was always abstract in music and the intellect – those were safe spaces for me. Music was the one space where I did carve out a style and a language of my own.
It all hit at once. All of those suppressed sad moments and all of that unlived potential. I went to see a psychologist ostensibly because I couldn’t find a direction in life. Just before I left the house to see him, I caught myself in a mirror and broke down upon realising for the first time that I actually missed my mum. I had never felt that before. Later, the psychologist cut through me like a knife through warm butter and that was that; I was revealed to myself.
Me at Grapham Water - we used to come here often, it's about a mile away from the old house
As well as mourning my mother, I had to grieve twenty-five years’ worth of moments made painful by her absence. Things like school matches, concerts, the one play I did, passing my driving test, GCSEs and A-levels, getting my first degree, musical achievements, getting engaged as well as the everyday care and love. I’d missed her at the failures, too; someone to give me a kindly word when things went wrong, someone on the end of the phone. I had to re-live all these experiences. I talked to my mum’s picture and told her all these things.
Then there was all my unlived potential to mourn. What I’d lost in unlived life while protecting myself. What I could have become, but didn’t.
All the tears I would have cried over the years were only being stored up to be released all at once. There are no words or music that could describe that loss. Nothing that could tell of that pain. But it was and is there, real as the earth I stand on.
What can you do with that loss? Where can it go?
A SONG FOR LOST CHILDHOOD
In the days after my trip to the psychologist, when all the pain came flooding out, I picked up my guitar and without thought just started playing what would become Song for Lost Childhood. It was a piece for me to play to myself, a piece to comfort, a piece for when the loss felt unbearable. It was simply a piece of music that recognised and accepted that loss. It didn’t need to do anything else, just acknowledge its presence and allow it to be there.
It felt like this was the music my inner self needed to hear. I was playing to that hurt part of me that had been frozen in time at seven years-old, that part that had suffered in silence for so long.
It was a place within me that needed soothing and healing, time and space, and a lot of it. There was nothing else to do.
I performed Song for Lost Childhood at St Mary's Buckden, a church a hundred meters away from my old school, on March 30th the eve of the anniversary of my mum's death
Sitting with loss, looking at it in the face is no easy task but is at the heart of the healing process. Unprocessed loss was at the core of my worldly troubles. Entirely accepting it and all the emotions arising from it, was the major step. The moment I accepted it, the path I needed to take became remarkably clear. That’s not to say the path was easy or quick, but I knew the direction forward - I’d tapped the self-healing element of the psyche.
Children are more resilient than we often give them credit for. Buried down there at the core, music helped me find what had been keeping me going since that young age: a quiet voice of inner strength. Although I doubted, I never lost faith in the world nor in humanity and kept inching forward in the right direction. That strength had always been there pushing me onwards while taking on all those disappointments silently. It’s a place now vindicated for all its suffering.
MUSIC AND LOSS
With music, you can attempt to fill some of the void left by loss, you can express the grief and sadness arising from loss, but you cannot express loss itself. Loss is a hole in the shape of something that existed, something that your brain has moulded itself around and to which it clings on for dear life in its wake. Loss is an absence of something that was there, while music is the creation of something that was previously not.
Music can, however, recognise and acknowledge that loss. By giving place to the sorrow and emotional upheaval, it can point to the void.
That was unmistakable when I discovered the delta blues aged eighteen. The sense of loss that pervades and powers so much of that music spoke right out the speaker directly to that place in me.
"You know I never missed my water, Till my well went dry, Didn't miss Crow Jane, Until the day she died" . The haunting beauty of Skip James
In my mid-twenties, it was the 6th movement in Beethoven’s 14th String Quartet that arrested me. The movement stops the piece and the listener dead in their tracks after the vivacious animated energy of the preceding scherzo. It is of such sorrowful beauty that can only have come from great loss. It’s the core underlying the whole piece.
While music of this nature emanates from a place of loss, beauty is its medium and lets you know of its presence. While listening at a desk, I’d begin to move my ear as close to the speaker as possible. The world would bend itself around me, warping ever so slightly as I lost myself and slipped into the music, the sound filling my entire head from ear to ear. And, if I gave myself wholly, I could just about make out what was behind the music and, even if I couldn’t name it, know that same thing in myself. Those moments glued to a speaker were of unutterably beauty.
You should really listen to the whole thing when you have a spare 40 minutes, but for now here is an incredible performance of movements six and seven by the Kodály Quartet
Loss is creativity’s driver; the absence must be somehow filled. So many works of art and religion the world over stem from loss. Music can funnel the directionless energy and emotions released, give them a home, and turn them into form and beauty. In acceptance of loss also comes strength and renewal. It’s only logical for me that after the 6th movement of Beethoven’s 14th string quartet, the finale should be one of dazzling vigorous beauty with the composer’s almost brute strength driving the movement onwards to the end.
Music makes nothing easier. It creates no shortcuts or quick fixes in regard to loss. It is, however, a tool for acceptance, experiencing fully, knowing yourself, and re-directing the energy released by life’s tragedies.
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This is the 4th monthly 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.