I am at the age where it feels as though I am attending more funerals than parties. Close friends are losing their battles with cancer, or something equally destructive and invasive. And as one sits at these funerals, one can’t help but (selfishly) consider one’s own fragility. And, in doing so, one also begins to reflect on those loved ones that have passed; on the different ways we deal with grief.
And I know much has been written about this and much research has been done on it. Still, nothing really prepares one for the actual happening. It is one of those things that one can play out a million times in one’s mind, but when it happens, when you are standing there, bent over your deceased loved one’s body about to be laid to the earth forever and ever…knowing you will neversee them again, ever…it is quite a different matter altogether.
Then there is the manner in which your body gets laid to eternal rest…the language that is used; whether there is more of a happy celebration of your life, or a sad mourning of your passing; the degree of correlation between your principles (and the way you lived your life) versus the way the ones that are alive choose to “dispose” of you.
And then there is the grieving process, about which a friend sent me the following. It is research on how music can assist with grief:
“Scientists now believe that language and music co-evolved to simulate the most abiding truths of nature. Indeed, for as long as we’ve been able to articulate the human experience, we’ve made music about the most inarticulable parts of it and then used language to extol music’s power – nowhere more beautifully than in Aldous Huxley’s 1931 meditation on how music stirs the soul, in which he asserted that music’s greatest potency lies in expressing the inexpressible.
This, perhaps, is why music is so sublime a solace when it comes to the most inexpressible of human emotions: grief.
Wendy Lesser articulates this peculiar power of music. Lesser, who doesn’t consider herself ‘a particularly musical person,’ contemplates the way in which music bypasses the intellect and speaks straight to the unguarded heart:
The springs of our reaction to music lie deeper than thought…Part of what music allows me is the freedom to drift off into a reverie of my own, stimulated but not constrained by the inventions of the composer. And part of what I love about music is the way it relaxes the usual need to understand. Sometimes the pleasure of an artwork comes from not knowing, not understanding, not recognising.
Nothing befuddles our elemental need for understanding more effectively than death, the great unknown and ultimate unknowable. Music, Lesser suggests, offers a gateway not to understanding death in an intellectual way but to befriending its mystery in that Rilkean sense — something she realised in a surprising encounter with music shortly after her dear friend, Leonard’s death, which she hadn’t let herself mourn. Lesser, who had traveled to Germany for research on a book about David Hume but had somehow found herself at the auditory oasis of the Berlin philharmonic, recounts: ‘I had been carrying around Lenny’s death in a locked package up till then, a locked, frozen package that I couldn’t get at but couldn’t throw away, either. As long as I was afraid to look inside the package, it maintained its terrifying hold over me: it frightened and depressed me, or would have done, if I had allowed myself to have even those feelings instead of their shadowy half-versions.
It wasn’t just Lenny that had been frozen; I had, too. But as I sat in the Berlin Philharmonic hall and listened to the choral voices singing their incomprehensible words, something warmed and softened in me. I became, for the first time in months, able to feel strongly again.’
Revisiting the question of not understanding, or what Thoreau celebrated as the transcendent humility of not-knowing, she adds: ‘Later, when I looked at the words in the programme, I saw that the choral voices had been singing about the triumph of God over death. This is what I mean about the importance of not understanding. If I had known this at the time, I might have stiffened my atheist spine and resisted. But instead of taking in what the German words meant, I just allowed them to echo through my body: I felt them, quite literally, instead of understanding them. And the reverie I fell into as I listened to Brahms’s music was not about God triumphing over death, but about music and death grappling with each other.
Death was chasing me, and I was fleeing from it, and it was pounding toward me; it was pounding in the music, but the music was also what was helping me to flee. And, as in a myth or a fairy tale, I sensed that what would enable me to escape – not forever, because all such escapes are temporary, but to escape just this once – would be if I looked death, Lenny’s death, in the face: if I turned back and looked at it as clearly and sustainedly as I could bear.’”
What is it they say about reading? We often do it to know we are not alone…