Some thoughts on grief and its treatment in songs

My very close friend Adam just wrote a very candid and thoughtful post in his blog about his ongoing process of grief and remembrance of his sister, who died when we were both in the eighth grade. I remember this time very vividly, not least of all because my own father had died three years earlier. When my friend was faced with his own tragedy, as different as the circumstances of our losses were–my father had had ongoing medical problems–I still related very deeply to him, perhaps sensing that despite these dissimilarities he would understand better than anyone else around me what I had suffered and continued to suffer. I journaled and wrote poems, sharing many of these with Adam. I have sometimes felt ashamed or selfish for having taken a tragic event in his life as an occasion to revisit my own pain, although I’ve forgiven myself somewhat for that, realizing that probably some unconscious part in my 14-year-old self recognized that I still had a lot of healing left to do, healing that perhaps could not have happened at 11, and sprung at the opportunity.

There’s a lot more that I could say about my own long process of grief, which, despite being able to live a rich and satisfying life and consider myself a whole person, I am not certain will ever be done. But what I realized reading Adam’s honest reflection was how superficial and therefore inadequate treatments of grief are in our cultural canon. It’s true that mourning is a deeply personal process and often a very private one, but there’s a fine line between that and secrecy or shame. As far as the medium with which this blog is primarily concerned, songs about the death of a loved one are far less common than those of romance or heartbreak, and with a much more restricted range of acceptable responses, even though I’m inclined to think that the former is the more universal experience.

For my own part, I’ve written dozens of love songs, but only recently have begun to write about my father, despite never having stopped being emotionally affected by his death over the past fifteen years. Part of that is that I want to make sure I get it right, and my relationship to this fact of my life keeps changing. But this isn’t a reservation I have about other people in my life whom I’m moved to write about: I’ve written a song to a lover during our time together, another when it ended and a third when we became close friends again.

Considering, as Adam does, the obligations that I have to myself and/or others who are still alive, it seems imperative that I should write about my loss. I’ve stressed in my past few entries that I consider music to be my contribution to the world: to be more specific, my duty as a songwriter is to render my experiences so that others might be be able to give their pain a shape and a name and realize that these struggles are not theirs alone. The insufficiency of the current body of work addressing this experience seems to demand that I should add my voice, trusting that someone will find themselves in it. Perhaps the most important function of art is to recognize and validate, both to ourselves and to society, feelings about which we might otherwise feel ashamed.

2 thoughts on “Some thoughts on grief and its treatment in songs

  1. Thanks for your post Shareef. Please don’t feel selfish for talking with me about your father when my sister died. It was a tremendous help and you have nothing to forgive yourself for. I think your spot on about writing about your father. And it is surprising how little grief features in our cultural works. Perhaps forgiving ourselves for remembering incorrectly can empower us to grieve more publicly, being better bearers of our loved ones’ legacies and, as you mentioned, offering fellowship for the bereaved.

  2. Very eloquently stated. Related to this look up Carrie Newcomer and look at her lyrics. She makes frequent references to her mother who died of cancer. (once or twice an album) you might appreciate her poetry as well.

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