SONGS OF LOSS
A MUSICIAN'S JOURNEY
THROUGH DELAYED GRIEF
The Well and The Flood
A Hymn of Hope
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My mother died when I was seven but I didn’t grieve for twenty-five years. Music helped me tap what seemed like an infinite well of sadness hidden inside of me. Yet, when tapped, the well also contained not only beautiful memories and connections to a happy childhood, but hope.
I lost my mum to cancer when I was seven years old. My parents were already divorced, and I was living with my mother in Cambridgeshire. When she died, I moved up to Scotland to my dad’s, leaving behind a whole world. But I never grieved.
Before she died, despite the divorce and re-occurring cancer, I remember my childhood as incredibly happy, even idyllic. It was a rural upbringing filled with dogs and the outdoors, support, protection and love. I had many enthusiastic boyish interests from pirate ships, trains and cowboys to Lego and the guitar. I was popular at school and quite daring once I got over my initial shyness.
I knew something was very wrong, but my mother never talked to us about the fact she might die – indeed it seems she was somewhat in denial about it herself. So, on the morning after the night she died, when I was told she had passed away, I was wholly unprepared. I knew what death meant. I remember balling my eyes out uncontrollably before wanting to go to school.
I only cried like that one other time until twenty-five years later. I remember I was asked if I wanted to see her. I said no.
That day I went to school and carried on as usual – probably the only way of clinging on to something resembling normality. And so, unable to process what had just happened, the suppression began. But those violent emotions stayed there deep within, dangerously coiled like a spring which was then to be built over with layer after layer of obscuring protection.
While I had familial love and material support, with grief I was on my own. Apart from the funeral, I don’t remember ever talking about her death. In fact, I experienced what seemed like an entire culture - in the family, at school and in the community - that did not know how to talk about death, did not express feelings about it, and did not know what to do with a hurt child. I remember sobbing about my mum once at school, aged about 8, only to be told by a member of staff that I was only crying for myself.
In the past, one might have been guided by local religious leaders, a strong community or customs designed to act as a road map through grief. Today, many of those support structures, rituals and beliefs have waned or disappeared - some for better, some for worse - while the work-orientated secularised individualism of West often means for fragmented societies and families scattered around the country or even the globe. Charities do a noble job trying to reach people in need, but can't possibly fill that gaping void.
And this was only made worse by the British culture of holding back. The attitude seemed to be to soldier on with a stiff upper-lip, keep your feelings to yourself, and stay strong. Death was swept under the carpet. No one wanted to notice my grief, hear about it or deal with it – and it wasn’t because no one loved me or cared about me; it was because no one knew how. If you don’t know how to grieve yourself, how can you help others?
And so, I suppressed my grief for the next twenty-five years, not even aware that I hadn’t grieved, hardly aware of the twisted knot of coiled emotion at my core. I just thought sadness was a part of me, a bottomless well deep within and one that would always be there. I used to peak into the well at night every week or two and, like a pressure release valve, shed a tear or two before shutting it off.
Me at my mum's grave after her funeral. The photo was taken of the flowers on the grave to remember how much love she inspired. I just happened to be in it.
I moved up to Scotland, leaving behind all traces of my former childhood. I struggled to fit in. As I grew up, I never found an identity or a direction in life. Something always stopped me short and, if I thought I had found a path, something would hit the internal brakes. I couldn’t commit to anything other than unattainable ideals. I also found myself unable to form any romantic relationship, despite a deep desire to do so. I was rudderless: things happen to me rather than me having any control.
It wasn’t until I was thirty that I realised that I hadn’t grieved properly and, even then, it took another two years to realise what this meant, to feel it on an emotional as well as rational level. Then came the flood. And when it came, I decided to explore the crippling waves of grief - as strong as if my mum had died in the night before - through music.
MUSIC & GRIEF
There was one way I grieved during those twenty-five years, and that was unknowingly through music. As a child, I took up the drums and guitar and listened avidly. Music connected to those feelings deep within – grief, anger and frustration - allowing their expression and catharsis all without my conscious mind being aware. Even though I never put the dots together, over time I began to write music that circled ever inwards towards grief. But this is a whole other story, one involving a string quartet.
Designed by Charles Herbert Reilly, St. Barnabas is hidden away in Dalston, London. From outside, you would hardly know it was there. Yet, inside it is a vast yet understated and deeply intimate space.
I have a deep trust in music and so when the flood came, determined to reach the other side, I knew it would be a guide and a tool to see me through. I knew if I let go music would tap into to the deepest most hidden parts of me, the ones just beyond my conscious view. It would tell me what was there. Allow me to feel them fully. It would give me some answers.
Indeed, music was the only thing that truly allowed expression of these deep emotions. But with their expression through music, I was also a participant and partially in control of where the emotional journey would go. I could learn to go with the emotion and manipulate it to arrive at a negotiated end point.
I wrote The Well and The Flood at the same time, at the very beginning of my journey through delayed grief. I didn’t initially connect the two together.
However, with hindsight, they were obviously two sides of the same coin. Tapping the well brought everything shooting up: all the sadness and hurt but also all that suppressed happiness, those beautiful, joyful memories, all flooding up uncontrollably. It was overwhelming, crippling, but also deeply cathartic. I began to see a possible brighter future, an end to the bottomless well. But the end would be some time away; this was only the beginning.
Before, the well looked like the darkest place, the devouring abyss. But at the bottom of the well lay an inner strength, before unknown, and the seeds to finally heal.
A PLACE FOR SADNESS
The writer Anne Carson questions, “Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” There must be a place in the world for sadness. To ignore it doesn’t make it go away; it merely surfaces elsewhere in more mysterious and destructive ways.
If I were to be idealistic, I would say if we could learn to grief better, we could learn to treat ourselves better and then, in turn, treat each other better as human beings. After all grief, along with death, is one of the great levellers; every human regardless of background must face it. In grief, all the riches of the world can seem meaningless.
Music allows a legitimate and socially acceptable place for that sadness and other inarticulable emotions. Music gives those amorphous feelings a tangible form and forces them out into the open, to be recognised, defined and expressed. It gives them four walls, a starting and a finishing point - a manageable amount to deal with in one time. These emotions in the form of music can also be communicated to, felt and accepted by others - something that words so often fail to do. Through music we know we are not alone in our inner worlds. To be heard is truly a healing experience. Giving a place to our grief allows us to process it move on from it.
This is the 1st 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 25 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.
Lurking in my past was an ancient trauma, as well as feelings of vulnerability and abandonment, feelings so strong they threatened to blot out the joy and hope I had found. Music helped look squarely at that and find the hidden beauty on even the greyest of days.