Illustration: Naomi Wilkinson
Illustration: Naomi Wilkinson

MUSIC

Losing my mother, then losing the music that could soothe after she’d gone

Usually, music is a salve for those in emotional pain but, according to the Jewish laws of mourning, Lauren Libbert must avoid listening to music for a year following the death of her mother

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By Lauren Libbert on

A lifetime ago, I used to dance in the kitchen with my kids.

The radio would blast out a hit – Rihanna, Taylor Swift, anything with a beat – and the three of us would jump out of our seats, shepherd’s pies cooling on our plates as we shimmied and swayed and punched the air with our fists, our grins wide and breathless with a joy that only dancing to a great track could create.

Just thinking of those times now makes my heart ache.

Now, the radio is off and our dinners are more sombre occasions, filled with conversations about our day, punctuated with silence and the occasional scraping of forks. It is a hardship, but one I am willing to bear, as I lost my mother to a cruel blood disease last summer and, in accordance with the Jewish rituals of mourning, I am not listening to music for a year.

There are other customs, too: no new clothes, no going to the cinema, theatre or attendance at traditionally joyful events, such as weddings or birthday parties, but it’s the lack of music in my life that has affected me the most. The reasoning behind this custom is simple. Music is a form of escapism – a distraction from grief.

In her comprehensive 2009 study on grief and music, Francesca Albergato-Muterspaw from Pennsylvania State University referred to music as an anchor in the storm of grief and explained how its greatest strength was its role in creating space for an individual and their feelings and emotions.

But, in this important year of grieving, I am not meant to have space artificially carved out, however cathartic or helpful that may be. As a stimulant for emotion, music has the power to both masquerade and deepen grief at a time when I am meant to simply sit in it, befriend it, experience it in its rawest, most honest state so that, after the year, I have processed it fully and can move forward with my life.

At a friend’s house, the radio was left on and I couldn’t concentrate on anything she was saying. The music was like velvet against my ears, soothing and comforting yet digging into the depths of my heart where my loss was most acute

In his book, A Time To Mourn, A Time To Comfort: A Guide To Jewish Bereavement, the author, Dr Ron Wolfson, spoke of the ubiquity of music – how you get into a car and instinctively switch on the radio, or step into a lift and immediately hear music. “Why?” he asks. “Because we’re afraid to be alone for two seconds with ourselves.” So, for the last six months, I have worked hard to develop a routine that eliminates music from my life, so I can be alone with myself.

Apparently, Adele and Justin Bieber have had hits this year. I wouldn’t know.

We listen to audiobooks in the car on the school run, Radio 4 is permanently tuned in at my desk and even Desert Island Discs has to be carefully turned off and on to capture the chat without the tunes. But, inevitably, there have been slip-ups.

At a friend’s house for dinner a few months ago, the radio was left on and I couldn’t concentrate on anything she was saying. The music, even with the sound turned down, was like velvet against my ears, soothing and comforting yet digging into the depths of my heart where my loss was most acute, so fat tears were soon dropping into her lovingly prepared aubergine curry. She apologised for the mishap and, of course, it wasn’t her fault, but the damage was done. The evening was ruined; the music had sunk me. I have been similarly caught out in supermarkets and shopping centres and even strolling past a talented busker.

That’s the problem with music. It has a way of elbowing itself into my life at times when I least expect it and, when it does, it literally takes my breath away, so I am left standing, immobilised by a tidal wave of emotion, when I’m supposed to be racing to a meeting or grabbing a sandwich for lunch.

Author Colm Tóibín understands this power that music has to undo and unravel: his novel, Nora Webster, centres around the depth of feeling in classical music – which the protagonist, Nora, only starts listening to after her husband’s death – examining how it answers to Nora’s grief and awakens feelings she’s never had before. It’s this awakening of feelings at times when I least expect it that makes me see friends in their houses or mine, rather than in bars or cafes. Less chance of being floored by a melancholic Sam Smith and reduced to a blubbering, unintelligible wreck while trying to catch up on news.

When I tell people about my music ban, they are shocked. Isn’t music supposed to help you grieve, they say? I explain the Jewish point of view and they frown and pontificate and I can see they’re not convinced and I understand why. Music has been used as an effective form of therapy for grief and depression for more than 70 years. Studies supporting its practice are plentiful, with one German study in 2009 claiming it could reduce anxiety, ease pain and was better than medication for relaxing patients pre-cardiovascular surgery and another – published in the European Journal of Internal Medicine – hailing its ability to relieve stress and the symptoms of depression.

For me, it is a discombobulating distraction and doesn’t have to be sad, soul-searching or even a full song to have effect. It can be a note or a bar as I stand in a lift or glide past a cafe. Even hearing my youngest son warble a few songs at a concert last week to the tuneless school piano had me unraveling, thoughts charging round my mind like a faulty firework – of my mother, the emptiness of life without her, my own inevitable death, my hopes for my sons. Afterwards, I was exhausted – completely drained of emotion.

This is what music does. Neuroscientist Oliver Sacks put it beautifully when researching Musicophilia, his book examining the effects of music on the brain through individual experiences, when he said it could, “pierce the heart directly”. Music moves me. It makes me feel. It makes me think about life, the future, my legacy, what all this stuff means. Above all, it makes me remember.

In the last days and weeks of my mother’s life, music became so important to her. She wanted to listen to mournful tunes and lose herself in them, as if only they could truly chime with the cavernous loss she was about to face

In the last days and weeks of my mother’s life, as her eyesight failed and the blood congealed in her veins, music became so important to her. She wanted to listen to mournful tunes and lose herself in them, as if only they could truly chime with the cavernous loss she was about to face. She’d make me play the same song again and again on YouTube on my computer – a heart-wrenching ballad by the Israeli singer Shwekey – her lips dry yet mouthing the words, her milky eyes closed, leaking tears out of the corners. The wi-fi reception in the lounge of her bungalow was patchy and sometimes the song would freeze mid-note and her eyes would fly open in panic at the enforced hiatus in sound, relief flooding into both her face and mine when the buffering ended and the song resumed.

In her final days, when she moved into the bedroom and the wi-fi wouldn’t reach, my sister and I rushed out to buy a CD player and an armful of discs we thought she might like.

Although she could barely speak, we knew the music gave her comfort. We could see it in the way her breath seemed to steady and her crumpled brow smoothed out. And then the breath died in her throat and the music ended. And rightly so. For what sound could match the rawness of our loss, the immense chest-crushing weight of it in those early weeks and months other than silence, low voices and prayer?

“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” wrote American author Joan Didion in The Year Of Magical Thinking, her book about the year following the death of her husband. So true. Of course, I know music can give comfort to the bereaved.

But music had no place in my new, motherless world. It was for the living – something to be enjoyed and luxuriated in. My mother’s death left us speechless, soundless. We were – still are – in deep, irreparable pain. She had been a woman of such immense power and now she was gone and no sound could fill the enormous chasm she left.

It is only now, as the months pass and the year starts to shrink that I can feel a chink of lightness creeping in, and my yearning to be lifted by music and enjoy it freely, grows stronger.

I suppose this is the grieving process working.

Last weekend, my son dragged out his karaoke machine and started singing into the microphone to a feisty, upbeat One Direction track and my heart leapt a little in my chest.

I slid the conservatory door shut so he could sing happily without me having to stop him, but the music had already worked its magic. I looked at my happy child and the spring sunshine fighting its way through the clouds and I was flooded with happiness, suddenly grateful for everything I had in my life despite my huge loss.

I want to feel joy again. I want to dance in my kitchen with my kids. And I know my mother would want that, too.

@laurenlibbert

Illustration: Naomi Wilkinson
Tagged in:
long read
Grief
Music

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