SONGS OF LOSS
A MUSICIAN'S JOURNEY
THROUGH DELAYED GRIEF
(Completing) An Unfinished Legacy
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Events at my mum’s funeral were infinitely far beyond my control and left an unfinished legacy. Throughout the ages humans have used music to spirit the dead into the afterlife. Music helped me shift my traumatic memories to a place of peace.
Me at my mum's funeral
“I may have heard she had gone to a better place, or slipped into the next room, but I didn’t understand what that meant. It felt more like we had just left her in a cold field.”
My mother’s funeral took place on a cold, grey April day I don’t know how many days after her death. I remember standing in the front row of a church full to the brim with mourners, her wooden coffin sitting motionlessly at the front. In the memory I stand sobbing quietly, while looking around at others to see how they were acting. I saw my dad shed a solitary tear.
I was not present at her burial. I was only taken after to see her grave. On the way there, I was given a hat to wear as some sort of protection. I remember looking at the mountains of flowers on her grave with all the notes of farewell. I remember my dad telling me that the flowers were a sign of how much love she inspired in people, just before he took a photo as some sort of proof lest we forgot that fact.
Events of that day we so far beyond my control. I was looking to and at the mercy of the adults who barely knew what to do with themselves under the weight of the tragedy. The future, at that point, was a very uncertain and scary place.
It wasn’t just that day hanging over me. It was also the unprocessed trauma of the recent past. I had watched my mum gradually wither away with barely a word on the subject. I last saw her conscious on the most fleeting of hospital visits when she was dreadfully ill and infinitely far away. Everything was left unsaid. Under it all, I felt abandoned, like she had left me alone to deal with the worst moment in life.
However, I had all but managed to avoid thinking about any part of her illness or death. I had been acting like nothing had happened. The funeral was my only day of mourning and it was not nearly enough. There was no closure. It gave me no way to release or channel my raw emotion, no way to think about death or to keep my mum’s memory alive. I may have heard she had gone to a better place, or slipped into the next room, but I didn’t understand what that meant. It felt more like we had just left her in a cold field.
The Pathway begins on that cold April day and then travels along a path through the Welsh landscape where my mother grew up. It was recorded in St Mary’s Welshpool, where my mother’s funeral was held
"We often falsely think of memories as static and fixed."
Religion, culture and society had all failed me in some way: they hadn’t given me the tools I needed to heal. Instead, I was isolated with a mass of emotion building up behind a damn standing very far from any pathway towards eventual healing. I didn’t even know there was a pathway. It’s little wonder that I lost much faith in the world and shrunk into myself afterward.
Tragedy had shaped who I was, but I didn’t have any say in it - I was its unwitting victim, too young to negotiate my own relationship with it. And so, it had snuck into my being in whatever form it could take and, from there, unnoticed, it pulled the necessary strings to avoid revealing itself or allowing me to trust the world enough to let another tragedy strike. Those defences concealed hurt but they also concealed the keys to healing.
THE NATURE OF MEMORIES
We often falsely think of memories as static and fixed. We consider our perception of events to be hard fact, the unchanging truth. Traumatic memories and our relationship to them can, therefore, seem like immovable objects which we shall ever be beholden to.
Like many in my generation, I abandoned any idea of religion or spirituality in my teens and took up some loose idea of objective scientific rationality as the supreme truth. With this, the only facts that mattered in the whole affair were that my mum died of cancer and that nothing could change that fact. The finality of biological death became the only true reality. Any deviations from that, any conception of an afterlife, of an on-going connection, were mere illusions, comforts for the weak who cannot look facts in the face. Indeed, I was strong because I could look that at death for what it really was.
The irony is that these views primarily allowed me to shield myself from myself, a façade of strength guarding from all the hurt and trauma I was harbouring, too weak to deal with. With my rationality, I could cement over my traumatic memories, leave them immobilised and covered up away from my every-day life.
This was, no doubt, initially a necessary protection mechanism, but it grew into a sophisticated defence which allowed me to talk away, rather than emotionally connect. Layer built upon layer, and with each layer, I got further away from discovering what really happened and how I felt about it, the disjoint between what I said and how I truly felt growing ever wider.
In actuality, memories are selective, often unreliable and are ever subtly changing. Even the facts of a remembered event, if contradicted over and over again, can be altered in the mind. Memories always come from a perspective and are accompanied by emotional connotations. That emotion and perspective can be influenced, either actively or passively. Indeed, we do this naturally as we grow older gaining understanding with which we can comprehend our earlier selves. The events of the past cannot be changed, but the meaning of them in the present certainly can be.
“Tragedy had shaped who I was, but I didn’t have any say in it - I was its unwitting victim, too young to negotiate my own relationship with it.”
"The events of the past cannot be changed, but the meaning of them in the present certainly can be."
"I started noticing that I didn’t believe in many of the things that came out my mouth."
THE RATIONAL EDIFICE STARTS TO CRUMBLE
It was only in my mid-twenties, when I had moved out to Berlin, that I started noticing that I didn’t believe in many of the things that came out my mouth. I became aware that so many of the reasons, justifications and arguments I gave in everything from politics to my personal life weren’t genuine expressions of me or were merely variations on a theme I’d heard or read somewhere. That was when I started to really question myself. It was the slow turning point.
I began, over the course of years, to dismantle these views, pulling back the layers to see what was underneath. I became quieter and more cautious in what I said. I minimised engaging in political discourse, only saying something if I was sure I believed in it. It was a humbling process, but one that gradually allowed me to re-connect with myself and eventually led me to grief.
Having rejected all spirituality as superstition and comfort, the seed for thinking afresh about this aspect of life came from following a scientific perspective to a logical conclusion. I was reading a book by renowned biologist E.O. Wilson on the scientific meaning of life when I came upon the curious line, “the brain was made for religion and religion for the brain”.
This rather stopped me in my tracks. This was rational non-religious [hu]man coming full circle and making the case that religion and the spiritual domain is natural, even necessary, for humans. I was about to make the same circle.
I read this just before I went on a month-long trip to Ghana. I was staying in the rural village of Tafi Atome learning some of the local music and I ended up speaking a lot to the locals about the old religious traditions and the new Christian ones. I was fascinated by the cultural and ritual life that kept this village moving forward in the face of poverty and lack of amenities. And always, there was the musical glue that seemed to underpin all these cultural events.
I came across a funeral there. They had hired a sound system and were singing, dancing and celebrating. This was a second funeral, the one traditionally held a year after the first. It was a celebration of life and they wanted me to join in. It was so different to back home, but it struck me as so much healthier than what I had experienced back there. I came back from Ghana once more questioning my core beliefs.
Looking at religion and traditional belief systems like I had before as a Christopher Hitchens-esque rational battle for the proof of the non-existence of God became increasingly irrelevant to me. I started looking at the effect cultural and spiritual beliefs around the world could have on people’s everyday lives, the tools tied up in these various traditions for coping, growing as a person, marking life events, and creating meaning.
In Shona Bira ceremonies in Zimbabwe music is used to connect to and communicate with the ancestors who have passed on from the living world.
"I was fascinated by the cultural and ritual life that kept this village moving forward in the face of poverty and lack of amenities."
And, of course, most fascinatingly for me as a musician, was the near ubiquitous use of music in spiritual life across the world.
"I started looking at the effect cultural and spiritual beliefs around the world could have on people’s everyday lives."
The rational part of my mind, resistant to any notion of superstition, still needed convinced. It was the thought of Carl Jung, which helped me bridge the gap, in that certain religious ideas could also be considered projections of the internal psyche on the external world: the gods in the heavens could be representations of internal forces, that a spirit of a loved one could be a manifestation of a psyche that still holds on to that departed person. Ritual, myth, symbol and music are languages that communicate to and express the unconscious mind.
That bridge liberated me somehow, opening a door to understanding a different side of life, a side that I hitherto considered baffling in the context of the modern world. It freed up that part of me which had previously been hemmed in and allowed me to let it go in its own direction.
Its initial direction was towards grief, but then also healing. When I came to grieve, I realised what I had denied to myself for so long: just how desperate I was to feel some sort of on-going connection with my mother, to keep her with me spiritually.
How to do this was another question. But by being open to this other side of life, the answers began to come to me.
I needed an act, to do something for my mother and her memory. I had never dreamt of her before, but one night I saw my mother in a dream. She was in the hospital bed where I last saw her conscious. She was reading from a list. The list seemed to be of all the things that people would do for her after she was gone. It became apparent that she was pretty miffed because no one was planning on planting a tree for her.
This was sign enough for me. So, I set about gathering the family and we went to plant a tree for her in the place where she grew up. Some of who she was for me is now invested in that tree. It connects me to her and also to my family as we now all collectively share something of her memory in the tree. It was the first ritual act in a new relationship.
My mum planting a tree at our old cottage
But I still needed to confront the traumatic memories, the memories that hurt and constantly threatened to cloud over all the positive connections.
MEDITATION AND TRAUMATIC MEMORIES
I’d been practicing a little meditation for some time and, when I came to grieve, I stumbled upon a meditation technique to aid that process. It involved imagining taking on all the suffering of the person who you’ve lost on the in breath, and, on the out breath, imagining a release of that suffering, letting it dissipate.
It initially felt so unfaithful to alter the memories. I didn’t want to cheat reality or live in an imagined world. Yet, staying held back by a traumatic memory, fastened to that darkest moment, locked to the perception and meaning it had to me as a seven-year-old, seemed equally untruthful to who I had become. Not moving on would also be a disservice to my mother who wanted me to live the fullest and who had so desperately fought for a normal life for me, shielding me for seven years in the shadow of her illness. In that her illness and death stood in the way of me moving forward, her nightmare had somehow come true.
I meditated on the last time I saw my mother conscious in the hospital. On the in breath, I breath in her pain, her isolation, her fear, her desperation, and her want to communicate what she couldn’t. I’m now an adult in the hospital, not standing distantly at the end of the bed, but sitting beside her pillow holding her hand so tightly, being there for her, crying with her, giving her a hug. I tell her that it will be OK, that she need not fear for me as I’ll be fine. On the out breath we’re there together peacefully, the pain dispersed.
After about a week of this technique, I tried to recall the original image once more, and it came only to dissolve in my head, dissipating into nothingness.
What really happened is still the same. I have not forgotten that. But the way I relate to that memory is different. I have changed my place in the memory and grown up. I have drained the emotionally traumatic element by taking the pain on myself, feeling it fully and learning to cope with it. If anything, experiencing all the arising emotions fully has made me more connected to the actual event.
"It initially felt so unfaithful to alter the memories. I didn’t want to cheat reality or live in an imagined world."
"These weeping songs are initially full of raw emotion and sound closer to crying than music."
USING MUSIC TO MOVE FROM TRAUMA TO PEACE
Naturally, I also turned to music to confront and shift memories. For me, my mother was not resting in peace. In my mind, her funeral had only left her, and I, in a state of purgatory. I had to shift her spirit to an afterlife, from where I could remember her. My inspiration for how to do this came from the practices of the Yolngu Aboriginals in Northern Australia.
In the traditional belief system, the Yolngu see the landscape as sentient. The ancestors inhabit the land and the people come from it at birth, live through it in life, and return to it upon death.
The Yolngu have highly performative funeral rites. Researchers have repeatedly noted how effective these practices are in resolving grief
When a member of their community dies, women spontaneously begin singing weeping songs. These weeping songs are initially full of raw emotion and sound closer to crying than music. But over the two week funeral proceedings this emotion is funnelled into ever more complex songs tied to cultural and spiritual conceptions. Gradually, personalised melodies and narratives of the deceased form and are woven into the song. The women will sing of the kinship ties, ancestral connections and significant places in the landscape related to that person.
On the last day of the funeral, the now fully formed songs sing the spirit of the deceased on a final spiritual journey through the ancestral landscape to their resting place in a particular feature of land. Here they become separated from the living and join the ancestors. After, they can be remembered through the music and the landscape.
The opening notes of The Pathway instantly take me back to my mother’s funeral. But the notes of mournfulness are transformed, gaining strength and forming a sort of farewell salute. This is the beginning of a pathway from where her coffin stood motionlessly on that day. The salute then dissipates into music that, for me, conjures up the landscape where she grew up.
My mother, the daughter of a land agent, grew up on the Powis Estate in Wales. I have happy memories of visiting my grandparents there with her. My grandad would tell magical stories of fairies hidden in the surroundings. I remember walks in the grounds, the wildlife and the deer roaming in the park. I remember games of poo sticks under a small bridge on the driveway. My mother used to ride ponies there when she was young. I heard stories of her complete lack of fear on horseback galloping as fast as physically possible or riding bareback through the ponds.
The second part of The Pathway takes me right here, into the surrounding countryside, the paths, the streams and lakes. The music moves through the land, spiriting my mother along a path to her final resting place.
She is buried in a churchyard on a small hill which slopes down towards the magnificent scenery of the estate. There is a huge tree which looms protectively over the graveyard, waving gently in the breeze.
The Powis Estate where my mum grew up. When she went to primary school she would sometimes ride through the deer park to get there
With all the trees and flowers in bloom, there is a myriad of colours in the fields, a collage of blues, greens, reds, yellows and browns. It’s a place of tranquillity looking over the estate where she used to roam free and where the deer still do. It is a most beautiful spot.
The music has helped me put her spirit to rest in that place, and through that same music I can also remember. I feel her in those notes and in those surroundings. In the last few bars of the piece, the image always appears to me of her galloping away into the distance free of any earthly burden.
I'm still a very rational and practical person. I struggle to think spiritually, to connect with what I can’t see, even though I would like to. But music acts as a bridge for me. It’s the domain where my practical rational side subsides and I can slip away into the next room.
"The opening notes of The Pathway instantly take me back to my mother’s funeral."
"Music can help us harness a negative emotional state and direct it to a new place."
MUSIC AND HEALING
Music is a bridge between what we can consciously articulate, and our unconscious emotional inner world that we can’t. If we open ourselves, music can have a direct line to that inner world. It can let us know what is there, it can recall memories, emotional states and people, it can help us to feel and release. But it can also allow us to move forward and plant new ideas.
Music is dynamic, it can take you from one emotion to the next. And so, music can help us shift our relationship to traumatic events. It can help us harness a negative emotional state and direct it to a new place, engraining new patterns of thought and helping us to change the meaning of that past event in the present. That new place could be something you have consciously decided upon.
I needed to reforge my relationship to tragedy and find a way of relating to my mother as an adult.
The opening bars of Chopin's funeral march are hugely famous for depicting death. But listen further and you can hear a response, an affirmation of life over death, before the middle section which seems to drift of into a nostalgic memory
To do that I had to go back to the darkest moment, a time when seismic amorphous emotions roamed the internal landscape. Music took me back, helped me to feel, confront and understand what was there. I also decided what I wanted my new relationship to look like and music was instrumental in taking me to where I wanted to be. It has given me a way, just by picking up my guitar, to think of my mother through the land where she grew up.
Using music in this way, you get out as much as you put in. To passively listen unengaged, yields little. To make music effective, you need to put in the effort. You need to enrich the music with affect, prime it with feeling, images, ideas and concepts.
Music can then power these concepts and enacted those ideas, give them potency and deep meaning. Just like music can be the sound of a summer or a new relationship, it can also be the sound of parting, of spiriting to a place of rest, of connection and of remembering. If we use music like this, on the boarder of emotion, concept and imagination, then we can unlock music’s immense and age-old power.
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This is the 5th 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.