Grief and the Healing Power of Music

I find myself in the rather weird position of having listened to three Genesis albums in the last week. I am not complaining, however they are not normally a band I would listen to. As a grown man and consenting adult it would appear I gave myself permission to exercise this rather ‘unwise’ choice. Autonomy can be a bind and extremely confusing at times like these.

I am well aware of why this has happened. My Mother died less than two weeks ago and I now find myself revisiting songs, albums and artists from my teenage years. Tully (2017) suggests that music can have a role in helping a bereaved person accept death ‘as part of our everyday lives’ and more importantly, we then find meaning through the experience of grief. I dispute the concept of meaning as for the last fortnight I have felt lost, overwhelmed and more than a little confused. I am aware however that grief is linear, in that, it has stages (Kubler-Ross 2014) and we navigate these in whatever order is relevant to each of us. Genesis though?

I haven’t listened to Genesis in a mighty long time. Well why would you? The ‘progressive rock’ movement left a nasty after taste for me, and therefore I ‘progressed’ on to pastures new and genres that gave voice to a political awakening. You might like Pink Floyd, Yes, Camel and Van Der Graf Generator but they left me cold and I never understood the reverence and undying love many of my friends had for this music. I still don’t. The offer that by definition ‘prog’ was “a mostly British attempt to elevate rock music to new levels of artistic credibility” (on-line) and bands at the time tried to push ‘rocks technical and compositional boundaries’. No honestly they did. Honestly.

In 1978 I was already besotted with punk and the clarion call to ‘never trust a hippy’ aimed directly at Richard Branson, or so it felt, owner of Virgin Records, who would and should shoulder full responsibility for the awful Mike Oldfield album, Tubular Bells. I digress though.

Heather Fellows (2020) makes the case, that music can offer ‘a safe space to feel the emotion of loss’. Those three to four minutes invested in a pop song represent a beginning, middle and an end where we can bawl, yelp, shout and cry knowing we are contained in that time and space, safe and in turn we have sanctuary. Fellows talks about music being the outlet for the big emotions, arguing “when we listen to music that moves us, it’s hard to avoid our feelings Fellows (2020) and this then can be a good thing.

Also through grief we can lose the sense of who we are and therefore identity can be transient. We are a child, sister, brother, friend, parent and the competing demands of these roles during a time of loss and bereavement can create a whole set of other feelings and a personal agenda which we struggle to reconcile. With this in mind music can reaffirm who we are and more importantly re-establish our spiritual roots, become a reminder of self, of purpose and where we came from. Genesis though?

DiMaio (2017) argues that research conducted by O Callaghan (2013) evidences a highly nuanced relationship between people that are bereaved and music. The findings evidence that 70% of people involved in the research felt that music helped them find “meaning and beauty in life” after the death of someone close. Equally music helped individuals confront pain and find meaning at a time when logic felt in very short supply. The participants were able to share stories, memories, thoughts, feelings and insights related to music and grief. In most cases people were able to confront their pain, adapt to loss and continue to develop a bond with the person that had died.

I cannot attribute any of the above to my current on-going audio relationship with Genesis. The 1978 album “then there were three” (Virgin Records) has proved quite a ‘rock’ in terms of support a and mechanism to revisit some of my memories of my Mum and particularly how those are located within the context of our family home. I find myself back in my old bedroom and music seems like the passage and avenue to how I now understand the world.

I would love to claim all those cool cultural reference points that others so frequently throw into conversations when considering their teenage influences. However it’s feels like I was adrift on an ocean all of my own making. Boston, The Electric Light Orchestra, Kansas, Cheap Trick, Sweet, Wizzard, Slade, T.Rex and Bowie, are not really the stuff of the cool kids at the time. Not too sure they are now.

I recently penned a piece regarding the lead singer of Boston, Brad Delp. I now know exactly why. I was readying myself for all that was about to happen. Don’t get me wrong I will stand by that first self-titled Boston album until the day I draw my last breath. However in the context of my Mum’s death I can’t help but feel that Brad, and the rest of the Boston chaps were steadying me, and reminding me that my life is so much ‘more than a feeling’ (Epic Records 1976). I could listen to that album track by track over and over. It’s a soundtrack isn’t it and a gentle reminder of the teenage Brian Mitchell and his Mum. The never ending threats regarding what would happen “if I didn’t turn that racket down’. Equally though a reminder of her care, attention, strength and her love. I loved her, unconditionally. I mean we fell out ‘in lumps’ but then who doesn’t?

Tousley (2017) argues that people have known for hundreds of years that music can touch the soul, and it can heal us in the most profound of ways. It helps us remember the person that has died and it can bring ”balance, peace and harmony back into our lives, even if only for a moment” ( 2017) That seems to make sense, right here and now to be fair. I am still not too sure about the Genesis thing though.

As an aside, whilst listening to the album ‘then there were three’ in the car, I pulled up at some traffic lights and became acutely aware I had the window down and anyone in the immediate vicinity would have heard ‘snowbound’ or ‘scene’s from a night’s dream’ emanating from within the vehicle. Needless to say I quickly turned down the volume and raised the window. I am not that ‘out and proud’ I’m afraid. Even I would accept the charge of ‘unwise decision’ having that album on.

For now though I feel connected to my Mum. I always will. In the blog the author argues that music ‘speaks simultaneously to both body and mind’ (2021) and that through listening to songs and tunes it allows us to really connect with “the indelible part in you that a loved one leaves in you, and allows that part to live on through music” (2021) I adore this. It resonates on so many levels. It also explains the Genesis thing. So messrs Phil Collins, Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks, I’ll follow you, no need to follow me though chaps. I had very little credibility to start with. Don’t take what shred of self-respect I have now, if that is ok?

Blog dedicated to Joan Mitchell – My Mum

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