This is the saddest piece of music I’ve ever heard.
I first heard this modern Polish symphony as the sound track for a 1993 Peter Weir movie, “Fearless.” An under-appreciated feature film with Jeff Bridges, Isabella Rossellini, Rosie Perez and John Turturro. It’s the best PTSD film I’ve ever seen.
The movie and the sound track have stayed with me ever since.
After the movie I had to track down this symphony. I realized this music would always be special for me, and over the years, that’s proven to be true. Whenever I need an assist to tap into my sadness and grief, Gorecki’s 3rd will do it. And then some.
The most significant loss is my life is the death of my 23 ½ year old son, Ben. He hung himself in our living room on February 12, 2012. Ten years ago. Ben wrestled with severe depression for over a decade.
As gutted as my wife and I were hearing this news, as profound the shock that engulfed us for the next couple of years, neither of us were surprised by it. We watched him grow this suicide for over a decade. Brilliant, multi-talented as Ben was, he couldn’t cope in the real world. He became another poster child for the ‘Failure to Launch’ series.
It was heartbreaking every step of the way. At his memorial, numerous of our friends came up to us and reassured us we’d done everything possible for him. Never abused, multi-courses of medications and therapists never yielded anything but temporary relief.
Any parent walking this path, having a dead child, will be bombarded with every version of, “I can’t. imagine . . . .”
That phrasing is coming from a caring heart. I realized quickly, I wanted a better response to these benevolent words than bowing my head, awkwardly saying something like, ‘Thank you,” or simply nodding hoping for this moment to pass as soon as possible. It took me a couple of days, but I came up with it.
A good friend, a colleague anyone with whom I had more than a casual acquaintance, would approach me with the tell-tale aura of uncomfortable tenderness, we’d make eye contact, and perhaps extend their hand or initiate a hug and start to speak, “I can’t I’m—”
I’d take their hand, perhaps touch their shoulder, take a step back from the hug interrupt them and say this, “You’re right. You can’t imagine . . . Be grateful you can’t imagine this. Just be grateful.”
All said without a trace of cynicism. Just an honest acknowledgement that some losses are beyond words.
My son’s death cured me of many things. All of my straight-male inhibitions to showing tears was torn away. Obliterated. I was 62 when Ben died. I’ve never been a death denier, but after my son’s death I now realize, and live with the conscious awareness, that death sits on my shoulder, like a pirate’s parrot. It’s not over the next ridge, around the next fork in the trail, It’s always right next to us. I can feel the parrot’s breath. Inhale. Exhale.
It’s not morbid. It simply is. Inhale. Exhale.
Of the myriad forms of crying, the one I want to discuss is heavy grieving. Full-body grieving. Every part of your body hurts. You shed tears. Perhaps snot runs down your nose. No words, no tender touches from spouse or friends can touch this grief. The most moving poetry ever written is sterile. It’s all consuming. You want to die. You wonder if you can go on. (Some can. Some can’t.). Your external senses cease to work replaced by searing emotional pain. Your head and heart feel like they may explode. You almost welcome it.
My first Hospice grief counsellor gave me a term I’d not heard before trying to describe this kind of grief. He was a young man, accumulating hours on his way to getting his therapist’s license.
Struggling with my words, he interjected, “You mean a grief quake?”
That phrase perfectly captured what I was trying to describe. He’d learned it counseling adolescents in high schools. The wisdom of youth coming up the generational ladder.
Thank you, young people.
Grief quakes were common experiences in the first weeks and months following Ben’s death-and episodically for years. They were surreal. Could occur with an obvious trigger (hearing a favorite song of his) or come on with no obvious trigger whatsoever. On perhaps a half dozen occasions, I was walking in my neighborhood and a grief quake would take my legs out. I could not stand or walk. More than once I was by a sign post or a tree and could grab on and remain standing. This kind of grief erases time. There is no time. You simply surrender to it. Let it run its course. Five, ten, fifteen minutes, I don’t know. But eventually the waves would diminish, and I could get up and get home. The crying that accompanied these kind of grief quakes literally comes from the depths of your being. Your ego is shattered. You are not in control. Be humble. Be human.
Listening to Gorecki’s 3rd accesses that level of grief. Every now and then, my intuition tells me it’s time for another session with Henryk. I always comply. Maybe not that day. But very soon thereafter.
Last weekend as I listened, alone and at high volume, I went through the entirety of my grief regarding my son. I expected that. Wanted that. And it happened. But there was a new dimension that had never occurred to me previously.
Going through the symphony’s three beautifully haunting movements, my mind was awash in vivid flashbacks of Ben’s death and memorial. One after another. All sad. All painful. I cried deeply movement by movement with one spectacular difference.
I saw my son’s body on a crypt. His lips sprinkled with sand from the Dead Sea, which I can still taste after I kissed him (My wife is Jewish and Ben was Bar Mitzvad). In the funeral home, choosing an urn for his ashes after cremation remains the most whimsically bizarre shopping experience of my life. Thank god for my wife, Joyce and our closest family friend, CaroleK.
Towards the end of the time Ben’s body was in the funeral home, he was twice anointed. First by Fr. Mike (I’m a lapsed Catholic) and then by Rabbi Eli and a temple friend of his who graciously performed the ritual form the Jewish faith.
This ritual was comforting to Joyce and me. Weird, as Ben was every bit as dead before the anointing as he was after. I suspect these ancient burial rites have woven their way deep into our collective unconsciousness. Can’t explain it. But we both felt better knowing our son was so treated on one of his last days as a corporeal being on this Earth.
While listening to Gorecki last weekend, an image came back to me I hadn’t recalled in a long time. In the funeral home, I was walking past the open door where the Jewish anointing was being performed. The men didn’t see me. The activities going on were probably 40 feet from me, but seeing the two men maneuver my son’s body I watched. They turned his body, placed his arms a certain way, rubbed oil on him in precise motions. I so appreciated their caring reverence. But I have no words for seeing Ben’s lifeless limp body, being moved.
Gorecki’s music brought that image back vividly. My deep heaving and sobbing continued, but this is what had never happened before. Gratitude for this grief. Gratitude for this pain. The realization that this blessed grief is what I carry of Ben. As long as I live. It’s mine. It’s beyond precious.
I’ve learned to live with this grief.
I can’t live without it.