Making space for grief with music and mindfulness

Last week I shbeaared my first series of posts that explored the theme:

“Stay close to anything that makes you glad you are alive.

In it I shared about the importance of family, my nephews, and experiencing joy in life’s precious moments. You can read it here.

This week, my intention was to write a post about music and how it has shaped my whole life. How music draws me out of my mind and into the world. I was going to share with you the beauty I experienced when traveling to New Zealand recently for my grandad’s birthday. The joy of sitting together in a group of people you love – singing, connecting, laughing, harmonising – knowing each other’s voices so well that you just fall into song without much thought to it. I was going to write extensively about how music frames my life and my being and is one of the things that continues to drive me in this world, but I was left stumped. I was halted midweek by grief and it was through music that this experience came about.

I was standing on the tram peering through sleepy eyes at all the people crammed into such a tiny space, like poor cattle being shipped away to slaughter, and I felt remarkably uninspired. I turned to my IPhone and began searching for something to listen to and, finding my music equally uninspiring, remembered I had loaded some classical music onto it several weeks before. On it went and in the next instant I was swept up with the violins and transported to a magical place. I closed my eyes letting the music flow through me and became aware that tears were forming in the corner of my eyes. Grief is a curious thing. It sweeps through you in tides. One minute you think ‘I’ve got this, I’m fine.’ And the next you’re standing on a commuter tram with tears running down your cheeks.

My grandmother has always been the person I associate with classical music. I remember going to visit her and her second husband, Tony, and as we sat at the dining room table over dinner there would always be a light hint of Beethoven, Schubert or Bach playing gently in the background. Last year Bea passed away and on several occasions since then I have felt an urge to play classical music. The therapeutic nature of music is subtle, with each bow stroke I can feel grief bubbling away inside me and I am reminded of what an amazing and inspirational women Bea was. Here I share a piece that I read at Bea’s funeral which, I hope, reflects what an amazing woman she was:

My grandmother has been a source of inspiration and creativity for me since I was a small child. During my early years I remember going to watch her perform as the lead violinist with the Wellington Chamber Orchestra. She would play as if lost in the music, living and breathing each note, and swaying her body to its gentle rhythm. I was so impressed. In my eyes Bea was a great orchestral rock star and I wanted to be like her.

While I never got the hang of the violin, Bea once told me that at the age of three I used to sit at the piano, staring intently over my sisters arms as they practiced the piano. I would copy their hand movements and try and memorise what they were playing. It was then that Bea decided to teach me how to play the piano. She taught me up until I was seventeen and it was through Bea, and her ongoing commitment to me, that I developed my love of Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Bach. I used to get so nervous sitting exams and performing. Bea let me in on her secret and told me that in order to feel completely confident when playing I would need to be able to sing the piece – all 8 pages – from start to finish. So we would sing these classical pieces… together.

I feel privileged to have been her student and so grateful to know that her passion for music, for performing, and for learning lives on through me, my family, and those she loved.

Bea had grace, elegance and style and never left the house looking anything less than fabulous. As a child I remember standing in her closet; my eyes wide with wonder at the rows and rows of shoes gleaming up at me. Something stirred within me that day, because I am absolutely certain that I inherited my grandmother’s love of shoes, and fashion.

I will never forget Bea’s contagious laugh and light hearted nature. That wonderful laugh could light up a room and was often followed by the words “how gorgeous.”

I will always be grateful to my wonderful, talented, and exceptionally beautiful grandmother, Bea, for the musical knowledge and the love of classical music she passed down to me and so many others. What an amazing woman. I will miss her dearly and know that her memory lives on in all of us. I will carry her with me always.

“Today like every other day

 We wake up empty and scared

Don’t open the door of your study

               And begin reading.

Take down a musical instrument

let the beauty we love be what we do

There are hundreds of ways to kneel

                 And kiss the earth.”

                                                                    – Rumi

I have experienced grief in many forms over the years. While there have been times I have pushed it down as far as I could because I couldn’t imagine ever dealing with the pain it caused, today I have other strategies that help me deal with grief and I thought I would share them with you.

1. I think it is important to go easy on ourselves when dealing with the loss of a loved one. The tendency for a lot of us is to shut it up, push it out, and move on. For me, this has never been a long term solution to grief and sadness. It comes to the surface eventually and it is up to me whether I choose to deal with it now or several years down the track. There is no ‘right’ way of dealing with grief and no time frame for when we should be able to ‘move on’. It’s about recognising how it is for you and being easy on yourself.

2. Sometimes the pain associated with grief and loss can be too much to bear. The tightness in the chest becomes unbearable. The throat constricts and tears just flow and flow and endlessly flow. One way of gently dealing with grief and pain is to be mindful of the feelings that are coursing through your body, rather than listening to the stories that swim about in your mind such as ‘I can’t cope,’ and ‘This is too much.’ Feeling the tightness in your chest, making space for it, offering it kindness and love, rather than struggling and fighting and wishing it wasn’t there are useful ways to deal with the pain. Offering no resistance to pain and negative emotions means I don’t have to suffer.

3. As this post (hopefully) demonstrates, listening to music as a form of therapy is extremely powerful. I have written before about the power of music nostalgia (and Neil Young, you can read it here). When dealing with grief there always seems to be certain songs that elicit a powerful emotional reaction within me. Sometimes this results in me not listening to particular songs for months (if not years). However, over the last few years I have found that when I put songs on that remind me of people, places or things that I have loved and lost and just allow the music  to wash over me – the result is something quite freeing.

4. If you find it hard to talk to others about how you’re feeling (I know I do), writing and journaling and just letting ideas, memories and feelings flow through the page is particularly healing. What are your memories?  How has that person (situation, animal, thing) been remembered and loved?

5. While talking to others about grief, pain, and loss is something most of us find incredibly hard to do, sharing your experiences with a friend or family member always helps. I wouldn’t even be able to count the number of times I have felt like I was the only one thinking or feeling the way I’m feeling, but after picking up the phone and talking to someone else I realise that I am not alone. There are always people around who will listen.

So there you have it, music, mindfulness, grief and my amazing grandmother.

Please share, like, and comment, because I would love to know your own strategies for dealing with grief.




6 comments on “Making space for grief with music and mindfulness

  1. Such a lovely piece of writing Tess. So relevant and useful to all of us. I love your memories about Mum and the way you draw it all together through your lifetime connections to music. Isn’t it empowering and fulfilling to share the language and knowledge of music, it draws people together and is very allowing in the way it connects us with the past too and helps us focus on sometimes difficult memories while giving us a way to think about them through a softer and sometimes gentle lens. I loved this Tess, thanks for sharing. I’m so glad you did publish.

  2. Thanks Jenny, I’m glad you enjoyed reading it.

    ‘…it draws people together and is very allowing in the way it connects us with the past too and helps us focus on sometimes difficult memories while giving us a way to think about them through a softer and sometimes gentle lens’

    this is so true and beautifully captured. That’s why I love music. Thank you so much for your comment x

  3. Exquisite Tess.
    – In the truest sense of the word. Your grandmother sounds so like the Grandmother I want to be for my boys. We have art dates, or studio days and they’re so precious. All that time you spent with your grandmother – what a gift – you to her, her to you.
    As we know, these things work both ways.
    Reading this with the music playing was a beautiful experience. Now I’m going to put on Yo Yo Ma’s Cello Suites.
    Thank you!


    • Thank you so much Anna, that is so nice of you. I love the sound of your art dates and studio days with your grandsons, they will remember those times well into their adulthood with fondness. It really was a gift to spend all that time with my Grandmother, I know that. Having her as my music teacher was a treasure. I am so glad you enjoyed, thank you for the comment.

      Tess x

  4. How amazing to sing through all 8 pages of a piece.
    I know I value the sight singing skill from Grade5 music theory, as when I occasionally join my parents at church I can join in the singing without ever having heard the hymn before.
    Thinking of you with extra gratitude today. Thanks Tess

    • I know Simone! It really was an amazing trick she taught me and it sounds like you also know the value in having things stored in your memory. It’s such a gift to be able to sing and take part in music, it’s such a joy. Thank you so much for your kind words and thoughts. x

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