Emotional numbing helps, then hurts. Music can be a useful remedy.
This entire column, not just this entry, contains a content warning. I will be writing about suicide, depression, post-traumatic stress, and other serious topics. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please reach out to someone you trust, establish care with a therapist, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255), or go to your nearest emergency room. Please stick around. We need you.
Part 10 of the Secular Suicide Survivor series. Here’s how it began.
Did you know that Ludwig van Beethoven was a grief counselor? When pianist Dorothea von Ertmann lost her only child in 1804, the great composer paid her a visit. Announcing they would converse in the language of music, Beethoven sat at the piano and improvised for an hour. Unable to cry till then, Ertmann finally began to weep.*
Since my son Josh died, music has done the same for me, time and again. Like Beethoven and Ertmann, I recognize that emotional numbing is detrimental to healing. At first, it’s the brain’s natural reaction to sudden loss. It rode tandem with my shocked disbelief that I would no longer see Josh every day. It helped me get through those awful yet necessary phone calls to his mom, his siblings, my dad and my brother. Numbness permitted me to sit with the coroner and arrange for Josh’s cremation without convulsively crying every two minutes.
Beyond a certain point—there’s no magical cutoff date—flattened detachment turns harmful. Ask any combat veteran with PTSD. Prolonged numbing not only blocks the pain but prevents enjoyment of the good stuff: affectionate connection to your children, intimacy with your partner, pleasure in hobbies.
Besides, I’d rather feel something than nothing, even if that something is sadness. I miss my son. His absence should hurt.
Here’s how “music as anti-numbing therapy” works for me. (This is also a darn good secular mourning ritual.) On my laptop, I’ve assembled a slideshow of photographs of Josh, from the day after he was born to the last picture I took of him. I bring up the slideshow, accompanying it with a selection of melancholic songs of longing.
Initially, I did this every other day. Now, it’s once or twice weekly, usually after a workday where my emotions have become over-compartmentalized. Looking at Josh’s photos in life keeps traumatic afterimages of his postmortem photo from intruding on my sleep, too.
This is my usual song order:
- “Transmission Ends,” Chris de Burgh: Shocking, I know, but there aren’t many songs about dead children. Certain love songs hit the emotional bullseye for me instead. When de Burgh sings of lying beside his dear one, it reminds me of Josh snuggling with me as a little boy. If the tears haven’t started earlier, the crescendo and climax can be counted on, to start wringing them out. And I will love Josh till my own transmission ends.
- “Cardiff Bay,” Martyn Joseph: I came across this Welsh tune when Josh was a preschooler, and I quickly associated it with him. As Joseph sings of taking his “son and his tear-stained face out of Sunday school,” I recall my role as Josh’s comforter and our shared disdain for religion. Like the father and son in the song, I wanted Josh to “know that I love you–all of my life.”
- “Night 13,” Auri: I’m a big fan of this side project by two members of Nightwish, along with violinist/vocalist Johanna Kurkela. When I played their music for my wife Jessica shortly after Josh died, tears started streaming down both of our faces. (The plaintive violin on their gentle “Desert Flower” does the job, too.) “Goodnight to an old soul/Goodbye to life once lived,” indeed.
- “While Your Lips Are Still Red,” Nightwish: Best known for their symphonic metal, this Finnish band goes quiet to great effect as well. This is another love song, a carpe diem exhortation to kiss while your lips are still red, “love while the night still hides the withering dawn.”
- “It’s Quiet Uptown,” Kelly Clarkson: The lone song on this list about the death of a child, Clarkson’s cover of this Hamilton heartbreaker gets it right. A bereaved dad, speaking to his dead son on walks around town, trying to live with the unimaginable? Yeah, that sounds familiar.
- “What Sarah Said,” Death Cab for Cutie: Lyrical and musical perfection, this song of sitting beside a loved one in an ICU speaks truth to me. “Love is watching someone die,” or in my case, identifying their body. Despite the ravages of loss, Josh is “a truth I would rather lose, than to have never lain beside at all.” (I used to sing Death Cab’s “You Are a Tourist” to Josh as a lullaby, giving their music an added emotional valence.)
- “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis,” Ralph Vaughan Williams: As with Beethoven and Ertmann, music doesn’t need words to reach the heart. This 20th Century composer’s reworking of a Renaissance tune feels profoundly tragic, especially when the main melody begins around the 90-second mark.
Musical touchstones are as unique as fingerprints. When I asked friends for their most meaningful songs of grief, the answers ranged from Pink Floyd to Jackson Browne to Mount Eerie.
Even inside my own noggin, what helps me today can be too triggering tomorrow. A classical music aficionado, I still can’t listen to the entirety of Johannes Brahms’ German Requiem. A religious nonbeliever, Brahms wrote his requiem to mourn his mother’s passing and comfort those left behind after loss. Josh’s high school band played a portion during a winter concert, and last December, they reprised it in his memory. Hitting play on John Eliot Gardiner’s recording, I was overwhelmed with emotion and had to shut it off partway through the second track. Another time.
One of these days, I’ll also steel myself to listen to Gustav Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children). So much is written about the love of a mother for a child, it was refreshing to learn the composer based his music on poems written by a father gutted over the deaths of his children.
Mahler was no stranger to loss himself. After his daughter died, he wrote, “With one blow, I have simply lost everything I ever achieved in clarity and comfort. I stood face to face with nothingness, and now at life’s end I must again learn to stand and walk, like a beginner.”
I can relate.
*Both composer vignettes can be found in Michael Ignatieff’s marvelous secular treatise On Consolation.