Music and Its Impact on the Grieving Process

Those of you who knew my husband, Dunc, might not have known how musical he was. Unless you can recall his whistling, that is. (And then you might not remember it for its musical quality, more for its repetitiveness and its vibrato!) Dunc could sing a tune back, no matter how complex, having only heard it once. He had a really good singing voice, but had never really explored using it, favouring whistling, even in the shower. Apparently, his musical career got off to a rocky start: he failed his grade one piano exam and then played the clarinet badly in church (his own words). I think these two events deterred him from taking music any further. However, Dunc very much enjoyed listening to music, whether it be something heavy on his iPod at work (mostly when senior managers weren’t looking), or on the stereo at home on a Saturday morning, bouncing around the lounge, with the boys and I, to something more cheesy. He had eclectic music tastes and I fear that the boys will develop an appreciation of mostly pop music in his absence, unless someone comes forth and volunteers to educate them in the art of German heavy metal!

Dunc liked to play music loud, whatever the genre, and I often found myself becoming slightly irked by the volume, particularly if I’d had a busy day or was feeling stressed. As a result, I was surprised that I felt the need to listen to a lot of music, and at quite some volume, in the early days following Dunc’s death. It was as if I was trying to fill a silence and a void. If nothing else, it helped to buoy me up, as it is hard to be so sad when listening to something bright and lively. I still use music now to lift my spirits on more difficult days. Combining a good tune with a bit of crazy dancing with my two gorgeous boys never fails to lighten my mood. When my energy levels are low, I find myself at the piano, playing and singing, though preferably with only the boys around to hear my rather rusty music-making attempts. This works especially well in the evenings when they don’t want me to go downstairs after bedtime. Playing the piano calms me; the boys know I am right at the bottom of the stairs and they can hear that I am definitely there.

Sometimes, I use music to help me to acknowledge and to deal with my emotions when I know that they are close to the surface. There are inevitably times when it is necessary to put on a brave face, and this can be especially difficult if I am feeling particularly emotional. Alternatively, it might be that I can feel my emotions building, but tears just won’t come. My strategy for both eventualities is to give myself time to play a tune or two on the stereo that will enable me to cry, releasing my emotions and making me feel more able to deal with the next event or the day ahead.

Music, however, does come with a health warning when one is grieving. Along with its ability to lift me up when I am feeling low, it also has the ability to bring me right back down on a day when I have successfully managed to distract myself from my feelings until that point. Imagine me happily driving the boys to their swimming lessons on a sunny Saturday morning, only for I Will Always Love You by Whitney Houston, or pretty much anything by Mumford and Sons, to be played on the radio. I have learnt that it is prudent to switch it off if I do not want to find myself being stared at by the driver next to me at traffic lights, wondering what can be so bad that I am crying silent tears at 8:30a.m. on a beautiful day!

I’m sure we all have songs and pieces of music that are strongly associated with particular moments in time. The boys like listening to Nobody Does It Better by Carly Simon. They have watched the video of Dunc and I attempting to dance to it at our wedding and they know it is special. For me, it is hard to hear now, and I hope that in time it will just form one of my many fond memories again. When I hear Don’t Stop Me Now (the Mc Fly version, I’m afraid), it takes me back to the evening of Sam’s birth and Dunc being a truly brilliant birth partner. Even hearing the Match of the Day music on Saturday night brought a lump to my throat, just because it was late and I was sitting watching the football on my own. After all, our interest in football (and sport generally) was one of the first things that brought Dunc and I together as a couple.

Christmas music will soon present me with a host of difficulties. Dunc always made the most of the opportunity to play festive songs throughout December. He enjoyed the really old songs that his parents played when he was young (having searched them out on Amazon), the more recent, popular ones, and bizarrely (and discretely), Michael Buble’s Christmas album. Playing any of these tunes at home this year will be strictly according to the mood of the boys and I. Going out Christmas shopping will be risky though, because I can not control the music to which I am subjected whilst doing it. I can just picture myself browsing in the stores, laden with shopping bags, chewing my quivering lip, while Mariah Carey sings All I Want for Christmas is Youoooooo in the background. It was previously my festive guilty pleasure, but this year it just seems a bit too close to the bone. In addition, I’m wondering how many times I will have to sit through Away in a Manger and Silent Night, trying not to well up when I think about the words.

Christmas music aside (and I actually wouldn’t be without it, even now), I think music generally has a very positive part to play in helping me to deal with my grief. In the words of Johnny Depp, “Music can open up so many emotions that we didn’t know we had.” Scary though it is to face the emotions involved in moving through the grieving process, that is what I must do, if I am to emerge the other side in one piece. I wonder if Adele and Scouting for Girls know what an important role they have to play in helping me, and, presumably, many others like me, through this tricky time?!Image

Dunc exploring his musical talents on Sam’s ELC guitar!

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Dealing With Bereavement

The evening of Dunc’s death is gradually becoming a blur. I presume that it is my brain’s way of helping me to cope. However, I can vividly remember that I was worrying immediately about the future. There were many lovely people around me that night, to whom I will be indebted forever, and they encouraged me to try and stay in the present and to take one step at a time. My way of coping with anything big or difficult was always to plan, and planning has just not been an option in the last few months. In its absence, I quickly expressed a need for a manual.

One of my mum’s familiar old phrases sprang to mind: ‘When all else fails, read the instructions’. It transpires that it is perhaps more relevant to constructing flat-packed furniture than to dealing with bereavement. In this case, there are no instructions to follow and I still find myself making up the rules day-by-day, hoping that I’m leading us all in roughly the right direction. My goals? To stay (relatively) sane myself, and to bring the boys up in the way Dunc and I had intended, helping them to deal with his death along the way. I did buy a book, written by another young widow, and began reading it avidly. What it taught me more than anything though, was that no two people experience the death of a loved one, or deal with bereavement, in the same way.

My experience of dealing with bereavement bears several similarities to bringing home a newborn baby. For example, you awake to a sea of flowers and gifts (both of which continue to arrive for weeks), and to a myriad of visitors and phone calls. People cook you dinners and rummage through your cupboards to try and find things stored in places that are illogical to them (but that make perfect sense to you!) Meanwhile, you try to concentrate on doing little things that just a few days ago took no effort at all, but now seem monumental and completely unmanageable. Then there’s the crushing, mind-numbing tiredness that envelops you and prevents you from thinking straight (and, five months on, it still is. My previously photographic memory now struggles to recall why I walked up the stairs!) There is no manual to which you can totally relate, and as you don’t really know what you are supposed to do, you learn to wing it, gaining confidence in your new life as you go along. You laugh when inside you feel like crying, and you smile because it is more socially acceptable to do so than frowning, when people offer you the most ridiculous of platitudes.

I am learning fast that dealing with bereavement is very definitely a marathon, not a sprint. With many things in life, I expect to be able to ‘carry on regardless’ in a week or two. I wasn’t naïve enough to put the death of my gorgeous husband in that bracket, but I did assume that the tiredness, the sadness and the confusion (about how my boys and I have ended up in the middle of all this madness) would start to fade. I’m still waiting, and all I see on the horizon at the moment are a series of further hurdles which I must clear first. I have very good days, bad days and days when I just keep busy because it is easier than dwelling on the situation. A day may start well, only for it all to come crashing down around me when I realise that Sam and/or Thomas have not shared my positive start. Alternatively, days sometimes start with a wave of sadness and the realisation that this is my new reality and one that currently has no end in sight.

I feel I might be further forward if I had more time to myself, but the last five months have been rather busy. I have concentrated very much on putting the boys and their needs first, at the expense of my own, as any mother would. Helping them to deal with losing their fantastic daddy, on top of my own feelings, constantly requires a lot of energy, way beyond the huge amount of energy and investment that is required to bring up lively children anyway. For example, I might think that I have completed the chores before the boys’ bedtime so that I can sit down afterwards, only to find that one or other of them has a different idea and needs my understanding and patience for a further ninety minutes. It is then that I often have to try and answer questions about the mechanics of the heart (and its failings), when I am likely to die, why Daddy can’t come back and how the spirit leaves the body at the moment of death.

Last night Sam was determined to stay downstairs with me because he thought I would be lonely without Daddy and needed some company. In many ways, he has hit the nail on the head and is just too perceptive for his own good. However, it is not the responsibility of my five-year-old to look after me – it is my job to look after him and, of course, I was quick to reassure him, without wishing to be disingenuous. In reality, the evenings can be lonely and I struggle to force myself to go up to bed alone. In the daytime, trying to work with the medics to get the best for the boys, and keeping them healthy on my own is a massive task. I watched a man on the television recently saying to the mother of his sick child, “You’ve been the perfect mummy today. You’ve done everything right.” It made me cry because I find the loss of that support and reassurance from the person whom I love, at a time when I really need it the most, hard to bear.

This week the boys and I will be visited by a volunteer from Guy’s Gift (www.guysgift.co.uk). I have requested their support to try and help the boys to deal with their emotions and particularly their anger. I have supported several children through bereavement during my teaching career, but it is vastly different when you are stuck in the middle of the situation with your own children. As for me personally, I have been awaiting counselling from Cruse (www.cruse.org.uk) since the end of June. I know that I need some help to work through my feelings in order to deal with Dunc’s death. I owe it to myself, and to the boys, to make sure that I emerge as mentally and physically fit as possible from all of this and I fully intend to do so. One thing that hasn’t been dented yet is my determination, and while that remains intact, I suspect that we will all make it through this.

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Sam, Thomas and I in Cornwall, September 2013.