Grieving Death in a Fear-Based Culture: Musical Expressions of Love and Spirit

By Mick LaBriola, Supportive Care Coalition Article, Spring, 2008

It was early spring in 2003, snow and ice still melting along the road. I was driving back to Minneapolis after teaching a residency in Aitkin, Minn., just north of Lake Mille Lacs. I had taught my “Rhythm Roots Workshop Percussion Ensemble” to fourth-graders for a week. There is so much love present when you’re teaching children. The kids love you up in so many ways: learning, reflecting, mimicking, laughing and squirming about in such lovely and magical ways. I was still feeling that layer of love, like a soft, flowing garment slowly unraveling off my being and drifting away.

Suddenly, I felt the residual of my student’s love replaced with the torment of my son’s death. Just as quickly, I felt the intense love for my son Diego, who was killed the summer before at age 6, emerge fierce and defiant. The love from my students transformed to the love for my son, and I started profusely weeping and weeping and it was a panic attack! I could hardly breathe and thought I would try to drive to a hospital for relief. I was trembling in horror and re-realizing my son’s death again and again. How painful and fathomless, ever so deeply intense.

Then I heard music; it sounded like a pedal steel or bottleneck guitar accompanied by weeping, moaning angels. The lyrics unraveled out of my hand to the piece of paper I was holding on my dashboard while I seemed to somehow miraculously keep driving. “Come back to me, I really love you, come back to me” in 6/8 time, followed by more flooding of tears. Then “You didn’t have to leave me all alone, I know you didn’t wanna hurt me, leave your daddy on his own;” then more tears.

But now, in this new perspective of expressing my feelings, attempting to put my piercing torment into words, I felt a sprinkling of grace and strength enliven my soul. I could breathe normally now, but the tears were still flowing. God help me, I don’t know how much more I can take of this pain and no more little boy loving Daddy, no more little kisses holding me tight.

Music had always been a major part of my life. The experience of losing my son at such a young age was impossible to define. Others would attempt to reflect my situation with “Oh, that’s the worst thing that could happen” or “I couldn’t imagine” or “Oh my God, what if it happened to me? I could no longer go on” or “Why didn’t you teach him how to cross a street?” or “Aren’t you over that yet?” These reactions were at the least not helpful and at the worst unimaginable, coming from the mouths of so-called friends.

I believe these kinds of reactions stem from a fear-based society that makes death a monster hiding in the shadows of the night, like a vampire or zombie ready to kill its next victim. And along with fear come guilt, anger, judgment and denial. I just could not fully articulate the inextricable chaos that was inside me as I rode the death train over and over again back in time, to that horrible day my son died at Hennepin County Medical Center. What was going on in me was and still is beyond mere words.

But with music, I felt there was perhaps a glimmering moment of reflection that could more accurately create something more substantial, emotional, reflective and concise about this devastating death. My son’s death. I absolutely knew I was going to record songs that I would write and sing and play instruments on. Shortly after Diego passed, I knew I must create music to express this earth-shattering event. Yet because I felt such immense anger and fear, I wondered how I could possibly harness those feelings into something loving and creative, something that would be more powerful and magical, more transformative and empowering. Was it possible? I would continue to write songs and slowly move toward creating a CD.

Months later I was again driving, this time from my mom’s place in New Lisbon, Wis., back to Minneapolis. I often talk to Diego and it seemed that I could hear him respond to me or perhaps just say, “Dad, Dad,” as if he were looking for me wherever he is now. Then wow! I could hear his voice with my music. That’s it – I could copy Diego’s voice from videotapes that I have to CD, and then insert the voice in or along with the music that I am preparing for him.

Eventually, when I had readied enough songs, I merged Diego’s voice, along with recapitulating violin phrases, drumming accompaniment and other sound effects to create soundscapes of Diego – a culmination of multidimensional visions emerging back and forth from between Diego’s world and my three-dimensional existence here on Earth. This was working for me, and I felt the soundscapes were being guided by Diego himself. Two-and-a- half years later, since the drive to Minneapolis, and about another one-and-a-half years of recording, I released Songs for Diego, I’m Missing You.

When I was finished, I felt an emptiness inside. The project was completed. Now what would I do? I realized that I had re-embraced Diego, holding him close to me during the creating and recording process, and now it was over.

I had attended counseling at a grief center in St. Paul, meeting other parents who lost children. This was very helpful. I also attended a Grieving Retreat in Pavo, Ga., hosted by Karyl Beal, where I met more parents. Two years later when I finished the CD, many of the parents found the music help- ful and entered the music on Web sites for their children. Karyl has played some of this music at the retreat’s Peace Fire ceremony, where parents are invited to cast a letter written about their child or some other special remembrance as an offering and sense of closure.

I think the music is helpful because it reflects the passionate feelings of the parents. These are feelings that, for the most part, cannot be expressed in words. Words are limiting because the intense feelings go beyond words and semantics. There exists within each one of us a place where words and intellect are far too simple an interpretation of the deepness and connectiveness of certain experiences. No one truly knows what this experience is like except a parent who has lost a child to death. Music or art, however, can bring a deeper understanding of the death experience. Or at least bring in other elements that perhaps can better exemplify the subjective reality of the  survivor.

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