Magic and Loss – An Exploration of Grief Songs

In mid-August my world was turned upside down – something that has become a yearly activity over the last 5 years. I received notification that my Grandmother had passed away at the tender age of 82. As it was communicated to me, the services would be held very quickly – just a few days later – making the airline tickets out of reach on such short notice. Fortunately, I already had vacation time as I had been expecting my parents in from Philadelphia the very next week. Their Seattle plans now cancelled, I had 4 vacation days lined up with nothing to do except dwell on the loss of my Grandmother.  One thing led to another and I found myself on a whirlwind cross country trip, taking full advantage of my day job’s 3 day bereavement pay along with the aforementioned vacation time.

Loss is a curious thing – it hits you in different ways at different times in your life. The trip to Philadelphia and back to Seattle on the road was an adventure that surely will make its way into my fiction work at some point. Of course, there was the 5 days in Pennsylvania surrounded by family, love, and sadness. But that’s a tale to be told another time. What I want to focus on in this particular piece is the music that has helped me through the tough times. Happy or sad, I always return to music as a guiding force in my life

Sufjan Stevens “Should Have Known Better”

I’m not sure Mr. Stevens will ever top this song in my mind. Not about death, really – but it has a sigh of regret that really speaks to me. Accepting what was, what is, and hopeful for what will be is about as deep as one can get. The instrumentation is sparse, echoing the resignation in the vocals. Features my favorite lyric of all time: “Should have known better / nothing can be changed / the past is still the past / the bridge to nowhere”.

John Mellencamp “Longest Days”

I made it a goal to listen to only John Mellencamp while driving through Indiana on the way back to Seattle. Some of my friends mock my love of John Mellencamp, but I really don’t care. I think he is a gem and he speaks to me on many different levels. This song kind of kicked off Mellencamp’s current phase indebted to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  It’s not an uplifting song, but as I was thinking of my Grandmom I kept playing this song over and over to listen to the line “But nothing lasts forever / Your best efforts don’t always pay / Sometimes you get sick / And don’t get better / That’s when life is short / Even in its longest days”.

The Flaming Lips “Do You Realize”

At their best, nobody captures the light and darkness the way The Flaming Lips do. The childlike innocence is buoyed by the realization that there are the sober facts of life. Nowhere is this more evident than on this 2002 single. I sang this at the top of my lungs somewhere in Ohio. “Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die? / and instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know / you realize that life goes fast / It’s hard to make the good things last”.

Bill Withers “Lean on Me”

I felt – and feel – somewhat broken as the impact of my Grandmother’s death hits me in different ways as each day dawns. I listened to this over and over in the car, I think somewhere in Iowa. My Chihuahua thinks I am a great singer. I don’t know who I was singing it to – maybe Bill Withers himself. He has such a calming voice in this song. It is one of the greatest songs in history.

Sleater-Kinney “Broken”

The first time I heard this song was the day my Grandmother died and I instantly burst into tears. It is the most unusual song in the band’s entire catalogue – a ballad on piano w/ orchestration. The first time I heard it I was thinking about how the loss of my Grandmother was going to impact my Mother, and I was thinking about how to get home if need be. And suddenly, the lyrics “I really can’t fall apart right now / I really can’t touch that place / Thought I was all grown up right now / I really can’t show you my face”…”But I’m breaking in two / Cause I’m broken inside” spoke to me in a way that made it seem like the band knew what was happening.

David Bowie “Lazarus”

David Bowie’s final video and single hinted at his knowledge that he wasn’t long for this Earth at the time. It was an artistic triumph and a final way for Bowie to secure his legendary status. Electronic flourishes married to jazz orchestrations, and a lament for the ages. And yet…and yet…it makes me feel good every time I listen to it. “Look up here, I’m in heaven / I got scars that can’t be seen”. Indeed. My Grandmother is too, David.

Leonard Cohen “You Want it Darker”

Of course, Leonard Cohen pulled the same trick as David Bowie later in 2016. He released one of the finest albums of his entire career and passed away shortly after. Leonard Cohen also knew his time was limited and he spells it out in detail throughout the album. This track is unsettling yet strangely comforting. It is the Gospel according to L. Cohen. I played a mix of Leonard Cohen songs somewhere in Utah.

Jeff Buckley “Hallelujah”

Penned by Leonard Cohen but made famous by Jeff Buckley, this is a song that is usually misunderstood lyrically, though the emotions it evokes in the listener is true blue. I smirk when I see it being used in a religious way – I guess sex is a very spiritual thing when done right. Anyway, Jeff Buckley was a legend gone too soon and makes me feel like everything will be OK. I’ve listened to this song thousands of times and will never get sick of it. I listened to this in Idaho, tired from the road, missing my Grandmom.

Mark Kozelek & Jimmy LaValle “Somehow the Wonder of Life Prevails”

One day I think this collaboration will be spoken of in the same hushed reverent tones that are applied to The Postal Service. In fact, I prefer this project. It is a one off for Mark Kozelek, sounding like nothing else in his diverse and confounding discography. It is a story set to an electronic background, as Kozelek tells us about all of the people in his life he has lost. He keeps coming back to the simple things in life that we take for granted and the line “And the wonder of life always prevails”. I listened to this song 5 times in a row somewhere in Eastern Oregon.

Death Cab For Cutie “Title and Registration”

I was a pallbearer for my Grandmom which left an impression on me that I am still processing. After all was said and done, I threw the white gloves in my glove compartment and haven’t been able to bear the thought of opening it since. It reminded me of this song where Ben Gibbard sings quite a bit about the glove compartment. Obviously, I disagree with his lyrics now.

Mount Eerie “Real Death”

This song spoke to me quite a bit as I was thinking about my Grandmother. “Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not / and it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art”. It is sad and cathartic. I listened to this multiple times throughout my journey.

Eels “P.S. You Rock My World”

This is a song about pushing forward in life even after facing great losses. It is a bright moment on a dark album, and one that I want to end this exploration of songs to listen to in times such as these. “And I was thinkin’ ‘bout how everyone is dying / And maybe it’s time to live”. I’m not there yet, but it is a great reminder. This was my Washington State soundtrack.

One thing I’ve found over the last few weeks is that not everyone is going to understand your journey as you deal with grief. I keep thinking of that Depeche Mode song “People are People” – never has an expression seemed more apt. I can think of worse things than to be misunderstood, so I push on – relying on friends, family, art, literature, and music to get me through. Just last night I was taking in the Original Misfits and felt more alive than I have in almost a month. Time may not heal all wounds, but it sure helps them hurt a little less. I still miss my Grandmother though.

For Kathryn E. McGinley – May 11, 1937 – August 16, 2019