Though he’s a Christian, Nick Cave's music and writing are full of useful wisdom for the grieving nonbeliever.

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Since losing my son Josh in 2021, I look for a handful of traits in art that helps me grieve. Pressured to pretend my life is back to normal, I want words, images, and music that bear witness, that affirm my loss is bottomless, that yes, it is as bad as it feels.

At the same time, I crave hope. I’m grateful for survivors with more years of grief under their belt, who’ve earned the credibility to say it does get better. I’ve learned to recognize who has really walked through the fire: they offer hard-won hope, not a superficial redemption narrative. (Nothing will make my son’s death worth the price of his absence. Nothing.)

Lastly, I look for an artist who puts into words what I can’t yet articulate. My brain lacks the capacity for a flowery surfeit of prose. I want truth, with a minimum of ornamentation.

At this point in my grief journey, nobody checks those boxes better than the Australian musician and writer Nick Cave. In 2015, Cave was nearing completion of his album Skeleton Tree when his 15-year-old son Arthur fell from a cliff to his death. Four years later, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (his longtime band) released Ghosteen. Where a couple of Skeleton Tree songs ponder the shock of recent traumatic loss, Ghosteen offers hope and a measure of peace after four years of thoughtful grieving.

“It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined.

These conclusions are not wishful projections on my part. They’re supported by Cave’s words from a multiplicity of sources. Director and friend Andrew Dominik crafted two excellent making-of documentaries: One More Time with Feeling for Skeleton Tree, and This Much I Know to Be True for Ghosteen and Cave’s subsequent album Carnage. In addition, a book-length interview with Cave—Faith, Hope, and Carnage—was published last year. Finally, in 2018, he began an unmoderated “ask me anything” website, The Red Hand Files. This forum’s questions can be broadly divided into three categories: song origins, coping with devastating loss, and a miscellaneous grab bag (do you regret your tattoo, why do you hate the poetry of Charles Bukowski).

From an early adulthood as a heroin-addicted, post-punk bad boy, 65 years and profound loss have tenderized Cave into an empathic soul. In This Much I Know to Be True, he describes his engagement with fans through The Red Hand Files as a spiritual discipline. Reading every missive—over 60,000 so far—he cogitates for at least a day before crafting a wise, kind response. To Cynthia, mourning the deaths of her father, sister, and first love, he started a response as follows: “It seems to me, that if we love, we grieve. That’s the deal. That’s the pact. Grief and love are forever intertwined. Grief is the terrible reminder of the depths of our love and, like love, grief is non-negotiable. There is a vastness to grief that overwhelms our minuscule selves.”

I keep The Red Hand Files open on my laptop for regular nourishment. Likewise, I dip into my dog-eared and underlined copy of Faith, Hope, and Carnage for solidarity and comfort. In utterly relatable fashion, Cave states that Arthur’s death now defines him. He’s triggered by places and things that remind him of those awful months in 2015, to the point that he’s never listened to the entirety of Skeleton Tree. With his interviewer, Irish journalist Séan O’Hagan, he notes how essential it’s been to find a language for his grief: “It’s not something we are practiced at as a society, because it is too hard to talk about and, more importantly, it’s too hard to listen to.”

Cave found this language as the Bad Seeds’ songwriter and in composing the music with his dear friend and bandmate Warren Ellis. Allow me to single out two songs from Skeleton Tree that express the raw desolation of early traumatic grief. “Girl in Amber” depicts his wife Susie immobilized by the sudden loss of her son, as the world continues to spin heedlessly. In a near-monotone, the repetitive lyrics convey the experience of someone trapped in a Groundhog Day from hell. Susie’s world is defined by absence, an inability to experience her son’s presence materially or spiritually: “I used to think that when you died you kind of wandered the world / In a slumber till you crumbled, were absorbed into the earth / Well, I don’t think that any more.”

Three tracks later, “I Need You” sounds even more desolate. Surrounding a vivid word-picture of a distraught, distracted woman in a supermarket, Cave repeats “nothing really matters” ten times. The final time, he ends it with “not even today, no matter how hard I try.” For this song, Cave’s voice is more expressive, frail and inconsolable.

Though the Bad Seeds are a seven-member band, the instrumentation on this album is spare and simple in sound. Andrew Dominik chose to film its accompanying documentary almost completely in black and white, fitting for a world leached of color. When making music, Cave can lose himself in performance, but away from the microphone, he’s adrift and confused.

‘Skeleton Tree’ and ‘Ghosteen’: Grieving with Nick Cave | Cave in black and white, as seen in 'One More Time with Feeling'
Nick Cave, as seen in ‘One More Time with Feeling.’ Photo from IMDb.

Color has fully returned for the Ghosteen documentary. The music is likewise spacious, lush, and hopeful. The instruments of the Bad Seeds are augmented by a string quintet on the album. For the documentary’s performances, a three-person backing chorus was added.

The album’s title is an English-Irish neologism meaning “little ghost,” though I’m hard-pressed to consider its resemblance to “ghost teen” coincidental. Cave describes the album’s lyrics as a communion with Arthur. As a Christian, Cave believes in some form of afterlife, but he’s far from dogmatic in his faith. Speaking in Faith, Hope, and Carnage, he’s pragmatic about it, more concerned with usefulness, less with objective truth.

Ghosteen opens with “Spinning Song,” its central image a person sitting at a kitchen table listening to the radio. This is Cave’s last remembered image of Susie before the momentous phone call that changed everything. Like Cave, my memories of the hours immediately before and after learning of Josh’s death carry immeasurable gravity: naivete lost, life forever altered.

The next track, “Bright Horses,” speaks honestly of the tug between faith and disbelief. A vision of heavenly horses in a celestial field may just be imaginary: “the fields are just fields and there ain’t no Lord.” Nonetheless, Cave lands on the side of faith.

The title track and “Ghosteen Speaks” are the two most meaningful songs for me on this album. “Ghosteen” is frankly ecstatic: in the documentary performance, Warren Ellis dances and kicks his feet as he plays the fiddle. Its opening stanza conflates the world with Arthur, the stars his son’s eyes. Cave sings that he “loved them right from the start.”

For me, this shakes loose a happy association from the memory banks. My son Josh was an unexpected third child whose arrival overwhelmed me with anxiety. Yet from the first moment I held him, I felt an immediate joyous bond, a delight in my swarthy, black-haired child.

Later verses speak of love and grief as two sides of the same coin, how “the past with its fierce undertow won’t ever let us go.” Usually an undertow is something to be fought, but these words allow me to embrace my grief as the way I’m going to love my son henceforth. As Cave sings later, “There’s nothing wrong with loving something you can’t hold in your hand.”

The lyrics to “Ghosteen Speaks” are quite simple—the better for this grieving brain to comprehend—building around the repetition of “I am beside you” and “look for me.” Placed in song form, these words help me to realize that my son is both dead and not dead. My atheism doesn’t permit me to accept an existence beyond death, much as I’d wish otherwise. However, my son lives on: in spontaneous memories, in things and places prompting reminiscence, in present-day experiences I wish we could’ve shared. I talk with Josh throughout the day, and though it’s just neurons firing in my brain, that doesn’t make our connection any less real, any less comforting.

Cave finds a community of the bereaved in Ghosteen’s final song, “Hollywood.” In a falsetto meant to represent Susie, he recounts the Buddhist fable of Kisa Gotami. Refusing to accept the death of her baby, the Buddha instructs her to collect a mustard seed from every home where no-one has died. Returning emptyhanded from this labor, Kisa realizes “everybody is always losing somebody…and I’m just waiting for peace of mind.”

I’m still waiting, but Ghosteen gives me hope.

Postscript: In May 2022, Cave lost his oldest son Jethro unexpectedly. I cannot fathom the pain of losing two children.

Lincoln Andrews

Lincoln Andrews

Life seemed as good as it gets in early 2021, with a happy family, a job I loved, and a long-desired move out of the Bible Belt to the Pacific Northwest. My world split open on September 12th, when...