Mayim MishegaasMayim Mishegaas

Grief, Month 12 – Music Revisited

Emerging from the shadow of my father’s yahrzeit
By Mayim Bialik     Published on 04/15/2016 at 12:05 AM EDT

The yahrzeit (anniversary) of my father’s death is now. I mean, he died last Passover, and since the Jewish calendar is lunar, our holidays float about until a leap year (which happens seven times in every 19-year-cycle) resets the days and bring it back into some sort of equilibrium.

And so this year (which is a leap year), my father’s yahrzeit falls a whopping three weeks later than the English date on which he actually died last year.

I was talking to one of the people closest to me about my reaction to some recent events in his life. He asked why I was so attached to them and felt so much weight and heaviness and sadness surrounding everything. My answer: because my dad died.

Sure, I’m always kind of emotional and in tune with everyone’s emotions even if they aren’t…but right now, everything feels so fragile. I’m scared people will get sick and die. I’m scared a lot. I told my friend that mental health professionals assure me that this is not an unusual set of fears.

My friend didn’t believe me.

For some people, the death of a loved one is upsetting and life-changing, but it is not traumatic. I’ve noticed that many people who had complicated relationships with their loved ones tend to be more “affected,” and my dad was a very complicated person so maybe I fall into this category. But everyone is different.

Some people find ways to cope by self-medicating with alcohol; some people take prescribed drugs thanks to a psychiatrist or a general physician (who in my opinion shouldn’t be prescribing psychiatric drugs), or take recreational drugs like marijuana (or using someone else’s prescription drugs recreationally) looking to chemical cures for a lot of emotional ills.

I am under the care of a therapist and a grief counselor through the hospice facility that cared for my dad. But I’ve chosen not to take drugs in this period and am muscling through the appropriate set of feelings which would fall under the diagnosis of depression.

I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong way to grieve, and I certainly am only an expert on grieving my dad as me, which doesn’t mean I am an expert on grief in general at all.

I chose to embrace the traditional rituals of mourning that Judaism has had in place for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years. They have helped me to be very present with my grief and to transform a tragic event into one of growth and mental focus.

I have not listened to music of my own volition for a year. Meaning, music has played in my presence and my children have requested the radio be on in the back of the car where they sit, and a few months ago, I had to sing as part of therapy for strained vocal chords, but I have not listened to any of my favorite music for a year. When I am alone in the car, I listen to talk radio like Doctor Radio or comedy stations on Sirius XM.

I have attended two weddings this year but I did not dance at either wedding.

I have not gone shopping for clothes. Although I have had to buy new clothes for work events, I did not shop for them myself.

I have not worn any bright color for a year.

I have not been to a concert in a year.

I have not sung with reckless abandon in a year. I have not recorded any of my music, which I started writing about 4 years ago. I have written one song in this past year but just in the past month did it come to me and I started to work on it, but only half-heartedly. I have not committed to music for a year in any meaningful way.

The rituals are done now. They are coming to a close. But my grief is not coming to a close.

I am listening to my first music of my choosing as I type this. I wasn’t sure I was ready for music, but it’s time. I haven’t listened to Bob Dylan in a year, since he was my dad’s favorite musician and we spent a lot of time especially in the final months of his life listening to Bob Dylan. I wasn’t ready for Bob Dylan.

I love Neko Case so much, but her music is so incredibly deep and emotional and heavy that I wasn’t ready for her either, although I miss her music so much.

I chose the album “The King is Dead” by The Decemberists. It’s an acoustic rock band. It’s gentle and emotional and the lyrics are metaphorical in many cases. There is lovely imagery, and the singing is rich, with elaborate melodies and a lot of complexity to the voices. I hear details in music now that I feel like I never heard.

I am crying as I type this, because music touches me very deeply, and I have missed music. But not as much as I miss my dad. I would give up Bob Dylan and Neko Case and The Decemberists to have my dad back.

I gave up so much when the Universe gave my father up. And what are we left with? Gestures. Human yearnings for understanding and coming to terms with.

He died; I won’t listen to music.

He died; I won’t dance or sing. I won’t buy new clothing.

He died; I live. But not completely anymore.

There are other times in the year as an observant-ish Jew that we refrain from listening to music, and for about five years I have taken on this restriction; once in the summer before the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, and the other time being the Omer – the 49 day-long period after Passover ends. These time periods, which mark moments of sadness in the Jewish calendar, are considered to be times of national grief.

And so in about 3 more weeks, when Passover ends and the yahrzeit is over, the restrictions of not listening to music – again – will begin because of the Omer. I honestly don’t know that I will refrain from music in that period as I have for the past several years. I am going to take the three weeks – after my personal mourning has officially ended and before my communal mourning begins – to reacquaint myself with my good friend, music.

I will work back slowly, one song at a time. I will decide what I am ready for and what I’m not yet ready for. And I won’t make myself feel bad or like I’m defective because I’m not ready for Dylan or Neko Case’s “I Wish I Was The Moon” or “Magpie To The Morning.”

I will start to work in earnest on this new song that came to me. Musically speaking, it’s nothing earth-shattering: it’s two sets of chords in fourths; it’s been written a million times before, these chords, I’m sure. The only lyric I can hear is “I knew a love…” and then it stops. Maybe the rest will come to me. Maybe not.

I can’t rush my grief. Why am I so deeply affected by this death? I guess only I can figure that out. Everyone grieves differently and I can’t feel bad about feeling bad today. I can just feel.

And so grief will continue to be with me, hopefully in less dramatic ways. And hopefully I will be ready to dance and sing and shop (which I actually hate, honestly) and maybe someone will invite me to a wedding and I will be the first one out on the dance floor. Or maybe I’ll leave early because I still can’t imagine how people can stand to be around someone like me, still grieving so deeply.

And that’s okay, too. It is what it is.

A note from Mayim about depression and grief: For a list of how to distinguish feelings of depression associated with grief from those associated with general depression, please visit NAMI. If you are concerned that your depression is unmanageable or may be continuing past the period of time which is generally designated as “expected” after the death of a loved one, please talk to someone, such as a mental health professional or grief counselor.

You may want to check out these posts:

If you need additional support, NAMI can help you find resources in your area.

(This is part of an ongoing series by Mayim Bialik chronicling her journey through the year of mourning following her father’s death in April 2015. For previous pieces in this series, click here.)

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