Commusings: Untangling Grief Through Music by Murray HidaryJan 31, 2021
I saw it happen in my rearview mirror.
Only hours earlier, a group of us were riding along the coastline of Capetown, South Africa. We rode by dramatic sand bluffs and turquoise waters with wild ostriches running alongside. I remember Mariel, my sister, giggling ecstatically, and I kept looking over at her because even as she was enchanted by the otherworldly landscape, for me, she was the greatest wonder of all. Her smile beaming from behind her orange helmet, the one she picked at the motorcycle shop because orange was her favorite color. It symbolized vibrancy. She had opted to ride with our friend Eric who, with his strong-but-sensitive appearance, was a more enticing driver than the frankly less cool option of her older brother.
At the end of this glorious day, only minutes from our hotel, the accident happened.
I pulled over and ran back to her. What came into my view was disbelief; it was the unimaginable.
It took an instant.
She was 23.
I knelt over her precious and now destroyed body. I held her close to me. As hard and as much as I wanted to give my life for hers, I could not.
Our friend Eric was also killed in that moment.
What happened was beyond comprehension.
I covered her stripped, torn body. I called my parents from the scene to tell them what happened. I heard and felt the primal scream of pure agony from my mother on the other end of the line thousands of miles away. I packed Mariel’s belongings and flew back to New York with my beautiful sister beneath the plane. I looked into the faces of despair of my mother, my father, my three brothers, the family and my community as I delivered her eulogy.
I had been strong for many things in my life, but I didn’t know where to look for this kind of strength.
Mariel was my most cherished love. There are those special people in our lives with whom we look forward to sharing this brief experience on earth. Our love for each other was so pure, innocent, and unconditional. We saw so much the same way. There is nothing in this universe I would not have done for her or made happen for her. I was her advisor, her friend, her brother, her protector, and in so many ways she was mine.
A talented dancer and aspiring dance therapist studying at NYU, she started her own dance school, Orange Dance Studio, and inspired hundreds of young girls not only to dance but imparted lessons of self-esteem, self-confidence, and positive body image along with choreography.
Her grace existed on so many levels, the way she carried herself, her impeccable style, the way she helped my mother, the way she spoke, what she spoke. Every decision she made was based on the deep values and principles with which she led her life. Integrity, compassion, service, discipline, and fierce loyalty were the foundations of her love. She was curious about the world around her. She craved life in every moment, in every conversation, in every adventure.
And on her last adventure, everyone we met was entranced by her. They were touched deeply. Moved by her presence. Her soft strength. Her humor. Her earthshaking laughter. She charmed them all. They all saw and felt the light she radiated. I even had one guy come over to tell me he fell in love with her the moment he saw her. This was not uncommon (for better or worse).
As the days after her death blurred into weeks, I can remember sitting on the couch, crushed by the weight of relentless grief. The utter exhaustion I felt after every last tear that could possibly be shed had fallen. That even holding myself upright was too much. I witnessed my body collapsing over itself, hollowed out, concave, contracting, contorting, my breath arrested, gasping, not knowing when or if another one would come, if the bellows of my breathing would begin again.
I was a broken man, unable to decide whether or not to give myself over to the pain that would surely kill me if given the chance.
I had a choice to make. Was I going to live or was I going to die?
It was tempting to numb the pain with work, self-medication, endless television, or empty sex. But to contemplate being so continuously disconnected from joy made Thoreau’s notion of “a life of quiet desperation” seem like being on holiday. It was clear: Unresolved grief wouldn’t just disappear.
There is no life without loss, therefore there is no life without grief.
Grief is something we all go through at some point in life. We don’t choose grief, it chooses us. The question is how will we deal with it when it arrives at our doorstep.
Grief is one of the most personal of human experiences, especially intense and complicated grief. No one grieves the same way, even over the same person. It was certainly true in my family. While there is comfort in togetherness, grief also carves out an inner space so deep and cavernous it is easy to get lost, as though your experience of the world has come to a halt and you can’t understand how or why the rest of the world hasn’t ground to a stop with you.
What I had seen, the horror of it, was in its own way sacred and privileged. And since I was the only one in the family with those details, I felt like to share it was cruel and unnecessary. Maybe, in a sense, I felt that since I couldn’t protect her in life, I could perhaps protect her in death. That decision left me alone with my trauma.
During the shiva (the weeklong Jewish mourning period) I stayed with my family at the Brooklyn home I grew up in. Hundreds of people came to offer their condolences. Someone who visited that week left behind a small, nondescript paper bag for me. When I eventually opened it, I discovered a knotted spool of yarn. I chuckled to myself, puzzled by the anonymous offering as I placed it on my dresser. Little did I know at the time, what an incredibly powerful metaphor it was.
Beneath the grief, the sheer loss, the missingness, there was a massive tangle of emotions so intertwined as to seem impossibly nonsensical. Shame, regret, guilt, anger, and shock were all stowaways on this dark and sorrowful journey. Knotted and layered, I had to figure out exactly what I was feeling to have a chance at any semblance of healing. That was the gift of the snarled spool waiting patiently on my dresser. One I could now see. But how was I going to untangle this emotional mess?
I turned to music.
As a composer and pianist, music was a natural language for me. It’s also the language of emotions. When we have no words, we turn to music. I certainly had no words. Even my grief therapy sessions were filled with long stretches of silence only interrupted by tears.
Music is a multi-dimensional language. Whereas spoken language is linear, that is, we put one word in front of another to form sentences and ideas to communicate, in music we not only place one note in front of another to construct musical phrases but we also stack music vertically creating counterpoint, harmony, and polyphony. A note played in one context horizontally takes on a different meaning when accompanied vertically by other notes who are also on their own horizontal journeys. This creates exponential expression. The exact kind of expression I needed to sort through my layered emotions.
Each day I would sit at the piano and play the pain out of me. Because I played whatever came to me – improvising – the music met me exactly where I was. It was a conduit for both what I was aware of and what I was unaware of, a pathway for my subconscious to release what it was holding onto.
The lessons of life started to pour out of the piano.
Music only exists in time, in the moment of itself — temporal, ephemeral, slipping through our fingers. Like our lives, music has a definite beginning and ending. As we listen, as each note passes; like our lives, there is less and less music that remains. Music can offer us clarity around death because it is a powerful metaphor for the impermanence of all things.
We think of time as being our most precious commodity. It is a finite quantity for us. The best we can do is take care of ourselves, balance living it ‘safely’ with ‘fully living’ in just the right amounts as to optimize for a ‘long life well lived.’ What increases the ‘well lived’ part is not just what we do but how we do it. The attention we give to each moment. How aware are we in the present? Listening to music without attention relegates it to the background. To bring it into the foreground is to pay it attention. And that is the currency of the quality of our lives.
Where we place our attention our energy goes. By definition we cannot be aware of what we don’t pay attention to. It’s just out of our sphere of perception, a blindspot. Where we place our attention is also how gratitude enters our lives. Music strengthens this capacity for attention and the present moment. The present moment is intimacy’s domain.
Initially, sitting at the piano, I could barely get through a session without breaking down. Other times, just when a lightness seemed to be emerging, a new wave of sorrow would level me. And after that first tidal surge, the waves kept coming, sometimes pulling me under deeper and deeper until the ferocious waters subsumed me. I was drowning in slow motion.
But I continued to sit down and play. I knew I had to go into the pain to see the other side. There is no way around grief, only through it.
The deeper the love, the deeper the grief.
Over time there was more space between waves and their intensity eased. Grief has its own timetable. Mood swings, bursts of anger, sudden rushes of tears. It can be as messy as it is healing. It strips us to our raw and tender core. But it is only when we hit rock bottom that we have something to push off against — to rise back to the surface and take the next hope-filled breath.
We are socially conditioned to be ‘strong’ as we go through grief. The softer we are though, the more easily we can open to the vulnerability of what we are feeling, expressing it: releasing it, and over time dissolving it. Music softens us. It liberates. And, with this we can feel more deeply, care more deeply, and love more deeply.
The music I played each day was the soundtrack to my emotional awakening.
I had to untangle those emotions one-by-one. Not just from each other but from the layers of meaning I had assigned to what happened, which was where my suffering was taking root. I began to strip away each layer until I distilled it all down to its essence: There was an accident. Accidents happen.
That doesn’t mean my sister’s death doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean her life doesn’t matter. It all matters. She matters. It just means it doesn’t mean more than that. The simplicity of that conclusion was freeing. All the additional interpretation I told myself or believed from others only shackled me to the past, perpetuating and prolonging my suffering.
We don’t choose grief, it chooses us. And, we must choose it back.
Once we embrace grief, it can actually expand us. It can serve as the bridge between suffering and love.
In the years since my sister’s accident, I have devoted my life to sharing this music. I have travelled to over 50 cities throughout the world and brought the same healing experience that saved me to hundreds of thousands of people. To meet people exactly where they are, just as they are, and hopefully, together, lift each other up with music. Creating a space for healing. Because music holds joy and pain together in a way we somehow experience as one.
Once I embraced this, death became my greatest teacher.
Whatever we do, at some point it will be the last time we do it. Whomever we love at some point there will be a last time we see them, speak to them, or hug them. We never really know when that will be. Music teaches us that the beauty is in the song, not any particular point but every point at the same time and at any given time.
What originally felt like a dying ended up being a dying into a new living, a new seeing, a new listening. Everything became saturated and vivid. I found wonder in everything; sunsets, trees, nature, people — from the harmony of the vast cosmos to an ant finding its way back to the colony.
It took me 10 years until I was comfortable sharing my story publicly outside of family and friends. Once I did though, the reflection back taught me that while it originally felt so personal and isolating, ultimately it connected me to a universal experience all humans go through. A connection with the great loss of others, of all humankind alive today and all humankind for generations before me and for generations after me.
Yes, grief can blow us open that much, connect us that deeply to all of it.
Death frames life just as life frames death. The two are inextricable. To accept one means we must accept both, fully and unequivocally.
Grief is a dance with acceptance and resistance. Do we choose to lose ourselves, distract ourselves, escape? Or do we confront the pain, sit with it, share it and, when there are no words left, open ourselves up to listen. To the music, to possibility.
At the outset, I declared the possibility for my healing and the healing of my family.
Some years later, I gave an outdoor concert in the beach town of Asbury Park, New Jersey, where my family summers. My parents, my brothers, my family, and community members all attended, as did many of Mariel’s students. Together, we set our gazes on the vast ocean, communing, healing together through the music.
My journey through grief started with me wanting to get my life back. It turns out I didn’t get my life back. I got a better one. A more fulfilling one. A more joy filled one.
I still miss my sister like crazy all these years later. I wonder what she would be like now, how her life would have turned out.
Music saved my life.
Love saved my life.
Mariel, in her death, saved my life.
At the scene of the accident, I found her broken watch. The dial stopped at 6:01pm, the moment in time in which my memory of her will be forever frozen. She will always remain 23, even as I continue to be propelled by the arrow of time, one day becoming an old man.
Until then, she’s always with me when I walk out onto the theater stage, and in the anticipating stillness of the room, as I sit down, I imagine her – Mariel, my sister, my cherished one – on the other side of the piano smiling at me, inviting me into the moment.
And with my first note, her dance begins.
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