Growing from Grieving 101: A Zen Transformation
"If only I could have helped you."
It’s sunny and 66 outside. My skin is hot and cold all at once. I can feel the anxiety coming on, and I don’t know what to do. If it hits me full force, it’ll paralyze me, and I have so much to do. So much to do. So much to do. I cradle my legs on my bed, feeling suffocated.
Tomorrow, I will be getting my first COVID vaccine. I am scared of needles. I know that it’s stupid, but I’m dreading it. I want to help my community and myself, but I am terrified. I feel sick to my stomach.
But I have to get it. Because of all that I’ve lost. And all I stand to lose, still.
Lately, I’ve been too weary to give my OCD the time of day. I’m so tired. So, so tired. It feels like nothing will ever get better, and I hate that. I try to stifle it. You have to believe in the good, I remind myself. You’re strong. You are going to get through this. You are.
Taking a deep breath, I grab my phone and open Spotify. Just a day or two ago, I made a special playlist for moments like this. Named Zen Transformation, I based the configuration of songs off of what I’ve been trying to do myself: it’s centered on moving slowly from a place of fear and pain to one of love and light.
The sevens stages of grief, if you will.
The truth is, I never got COVID, and neither did he. But parts of us both died because of it. Him, in more ways than one…
A tear slips down my cheek, because I remember he has no gravestone. There’s no place I can go to mourn him. I’m locked in a cage-- that’s what it feels like. I miss him so much, and it’s unbearable. But I have to bear it. For him. For them. For me. So I hit play, and settle into my meditative mindset. My acupuncturist told me meditation is medication, and I believe it. 40 mg of Prozac doesn’t nearly help me as much as it used to, and I need a new alternative.
Track 1- Gradual of Eleanor of Brittany: Kyrie: Orbis factor by Ensemble Organum
I grew up Episcopalian, and currently, at the ripe age of 17, I consider my faith to be an agglomeration of its beliefs and those of Buddhism. In other words, I love a good church hymn… but this piece being religious is purely coincidental. Instead of filling me with the hope and peace that hymns often give, this haunting organum reminds me of how heavy it feels to be human. It slams me down to the Earth underneath and around me, and it’s like I can feel the weight of every single struggle humanity has undergone. All of it gathers inside of me and spreads through my fingertips like ivy and I choose not to move. Human grief and fragility, so apparent in the chanting, is so raw and real but at the same time so detached and divine. It feels mortal and immortal all at once. I suppose that’s what being human really is.
In some ways, this piece is a spiritual experience, but not one I can compare to any church service.
I know what you must be thinking-- the things you are describing don’t sound very zen. And in the traditional sense of the word, they aren’t. Christian chanting is about as far from the bullseye as you can get.
But nothing about grieving makes sense, and as I think of everything COVID stole from us, I am comforted by the droning male voices and the haunting female soloist. I feel sad, but I am calm. The sinews of my soul aren’t so twisted up; my brain becomes less muddled, and I am able to put coherent thoughts together again.
I listen to the piece over and over, hitting repeat until the pain is dulled into weight. Then, when I’m ready, I let the voices trickle away, musical raindrops slipping down a window to the pavement or some place else. Time for Track 2.
Track 2- I Will Not Be Sad In This World by Dijvan Gasparyan
Have you ever heard of the duduk? Well, me neither, but after hearing this piece for the first time, I did intense research on it because nothing ever felt the way it did.
The duduk, or tsiranapogh, is an Armenian woodwind instrument whose name roughly translates to “apricot-made wind instrument”. In Armenia, apricots grow naturally, and are considered sacred because of the abundance they have brought to the country over many centuries.
It seems strange, but as I lay in my bed, I feel the weight of all the world shrinking and forming a close-knit ball, not unlike the shape of an apricot. It’s the same weight, but now has the size of just one country. It feels like a heavy paperweight in my hands, and my own troubles are lighter in comparison.
Trading one’s own grief to examine another seems counterintuitive, but you know what? It all ties back to him, and losing him.
You see, we went on a comparative religions field trip last year, and learned about places all over the world. It’s my fondest memory together-- we gorged ourselves on Indian food and laughed so hard we cried and wished we never had to go back to class. The schoolbus carried us home, all the way home. We walked together inside suburbia, dreaming about everything that extended beyond. We’d caught a glimpse of it that day, but we wanted more. We needed more. Wanderlust was an understatement.
Now, I am alone, in my bed-- as far from that Great Beyond as one could ever be, but perhaps closer than I realize. I don’t yet feel the urge to cry, but like a bucket filled to the brim, one tremor could spill me.
I imagine my childhood street, and how the trees bloom in the spring. Only, instead of stinky pear blossoms, I imagine they’re all laden with dripping apricots. He plucks one from a lower stem-- he’s short-- and hands it to me.
Holding it in my palm, and feeling its gentle fuzz tickling my skin, I can’t help but think to myself, It’s too cold here for apricots to grow.
The duduk’s deep, whispering tones seem appropriate as my fairytale collapses around me and I’m paralyzed underneath my covers again. I don’t know if I should start the song over or let it switch to another. My hand hovers, but I don’t decide in time, so it moves forward on its own. Sometimes, that’s the only way things will progress.
Track 3- Danny by Olafur Arnalds
I know I spoke a lot about Armenia, but my family’s actually Icelandic. Icelandic and pretty much all of Europe, but I brag about Iceland because it’s the coolest-- no pun intended. Anyway, did you know that Iceland has somehow produced several profound classical composers? Ólafur Arnalds is one of them. My mom and I had tickets to see him in concert once, in a time that now feels long ago, but we didn’t end up going. I still don’t really know why. Maybe if I had, things would’ve been different.
My mom. Tears pepper my cheeks as I think of her-- it’s the thing that gets me to finally cry. I remember how her face was all twisted up when she knocked on my bedroom door that morning. How she stood by me when I talked to the cops, how she helped me plan the memorial, how she held me at the foot of my bed when I told her I didn’t want to be alive anymore, how she-- how she--
I’m crying so hard all of a sudden, and my chest feels like it’s engulfed. In flames, or maybe in water.
I don’t want him to be gone.
She cried for him like he was her own son. My mother, a woman that life has tossed around like a ragdoll. She can still love. I want to be like her; strong. But the cello string sings.
This piece is called Danny. It’s from Broadchurch--a show less about a little boy’s murder and more about the impenetrable pain it puts his mother in. I watched it with my mom before all of this happened, and I thought, How sad. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to lose a child.
Even though I know a murder and a suicide are nothing alike, and he wasn’t my son, but my best friend, I'm sorry to say I somewhat understand.
The blooming chords color my eyes bright again, but they shatter into millions of tiny water droplets after only a second of vibrancy. Nothing gold can stay.
The song ends and my vision is too blurry to play it back. I just feel weary.
Track 4- Isabella’s Lullabye by Takahiro Obata
This is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced. This song.
I got chills all down my arms the first time I heard it, and I still do now, on the hundredth. Actually, it’s definitely been more than a hundred-- it’s all I could listen to for a time. Chicken noodle soup for the soul, if you will.
I first watched the anime this song is from by myself. The finale made me bawl, so naturally I felt the need to share the wealth. I forced my boyfriend to be the subject of my torture, and he loved the show-- just as I thought he would. Loved it, but hated it, but loved it.
I won’t say what The Promised Neverland is about, because I’m not one to spoil things. But I watched that season finale and all I could think of was how much my friend would’ve loved it. My friend who had died only a month or two before I discovered it. That hurt worse than anything, so I gushed about the show to anyone I could. Maybe it was to distract, or to deflect. I don’t know.
Now, this song is as sacred as an apricot. It holds the string between my boyfriend and I tight, so that even amidst the sorrow, I feel love. The isolated female humming, backed up by the sad strums of the mandolin, transforms from something painful into something hopeful by the end. As is life.
I feel sad, but I look forward. I may listen to the track once or twice more-- how could I not? But now, my tears are beginning to dry. My face feels a little itchy, but I inhale my whole lungs’ worth for the first time in hours.
Track 5- Oogway Ascends by Hans Zimmer
I loved Kung Fu Panda as a kid. I’ve been doing tae kwon do since age 5, and had never seen martial arts represented in the media before (still too young for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) Anyway, my dad took me to see it in theaters. I remember getting one of those little kid food trays with a drink and a bag of candy and a miniature container of popcorn. The year was 2008, and I was 22 days away from being 5.
Two years later, when I was about 7, my dad died very suddenly. An arrhythmia due to an enlarged heart got him in his sleep. We were never able to figure out what happened. I largely consider it to be unknown causes. That’s how I knew the cops were at my door when they came for Will. I woke up and rolled over to the other side of my bed and I knew. I had lived through it before, you see.
I lost two things recently-- my Will, and my will-- and both remind me of the pain of losing my father. Losing my childhood; losing the movie outings and the kids’ trays. The ache of it all sort of mashes together. No matter what, when I’m sad, things tend to lead back to Dad.
But listening to this song and thinking of my childhood, I feel like I have all three of those things I believed to have been lost forever. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? An animated turtle’s death shaped who I am more than I realized. Maybe it even saved me.
For the first time since I put my earbuds in, I sit up. I cross my legs into a lotus, and let my palms face the sky. The song ends and there are no repeats, because even though I only saw Kung Fu Panda once and it’s gone now, I can hold its emotions in my heart and replay them that way.
Track 6- Leaves from the Vine by Samuel Kim
I suppose you’re noticing a trend by now-- I sure love animated cinematography. What can I say? A blue sky painted is far more enchanting than a blue sky outside of your window. Well, that’s what I’ve always thought. I’m trying to open the blinds more.
I watched Avatar: The Last Airbender for the second time with my three siblings. The first time I saw it was in my Kung Fu Panda era, but I don’t remember anything. They say trauma makes memory worse, especially in children.
I lost Will on May 30-- coincidentally my boyfriend’s birthday. Isn’t it weird how all of us are connected? Anyway, I lost him at the end of May, and I started ATLA the first or second week of June. My heart had a huge gash in it and all I could stomach was kids’ shows for a while. However, anyone who’s watched ATLA can tell you that it’s certainly not just any old kids’ show.
Leaves from the Vine is sung by one of the main characters on the anniversary of his son’s death. He’s sitting atop a hill under a tree, and lights incense. My dad always burned incense, by the way. Tears are in his eyes as he says, “Happy birthday, my son. If only I could have helped you.”
I’m still in criss-cross-apple-sauce (a phrase my Kung Fu Panda self picked up and will never put down) on my bed, but instead of thinking of my own dad, my mind goes to Will’s. His father was so torn up when it all happened; I was the only name he could come up with when the cops asked him about those who should be contacted. He let me take full reigns of the memorial, and moved to Pennsylvania a week or so after the service. I have his email, and write him from time to time. There are things I’m still doing within the community to try and honor his son, and I want him to know about them. But he never replies.
I still partially think it was all my fault, even though it wasn’t. I’ve been working on it a lot in therapy-- the awful guilt-- and it’s been getting better. But thinking of that man packing his bags and moving two states over, facing the pain of first losing a wife to cancer and then a son to…
I wish he’d write me back. But I understand why he doesn’t. It’s all so unbearably painful, but it’s not my fault.
I’m breathing normally now, and I feel light. I close my eyes and repeat those words over and over until I believe them. I don’t even notice the song change.
Track 7- Outro by M83
I discovered this song all on my own, and I haven’t shared it with anyone else since. I’m a firm believer in everyone having a song dedicated to the relationship they have with their own soul. Families, friendships-- every person I meet has a song attached. Hell, every memory worth remembering has a song attached. That’s what makes music so special.
But this song? It’s solely mine. There are no memories, no ties to anyone. It’s just me, in my room, learning how to pick myself back up after being tossed and torn apart. I can’t even explain the song in words, but every note makes up a class in my brain called Growing from Grieving 101.
It hurts. But I’m going to make it out. I may always feel this way… but I’m going to make it out.
Track 8- To The Stars by Max Richter
Being okay with me is one thing. Being okay with the universe is an entirely different ballgame. But it’s time I learned it, too.
It’s easy for me to be bitter at the grass that I picked at with my toes the morning of May 30th. It’s easy to ignore the blooming cherry blossoms because they remind me of my dad. It’s easy to blame a mysterious scratch on a tree branch. It’s easy to curse everything solid in this world, and everything we cannot see, too. But that’s all it is. Easy.
The universe isn’t here to be easy. It isn’t here to be anything. It just is.
Those stars never stopped twinkling, and the sun will rise tomorrow. The universe is many things, but it does not break its promises.
I think of the heaviness of Track 1, and I wonder if it was heaviness at all, or just gravity. The Earth loves me so much, it’s hugging me close to its breast, like a mother does to her child.
I may dream of seeing you in the stars one day, Will, but I know that living on solid ground is what I’m meant for in this moment of life.
My heart feels so warm, thinking of your smile. I miss you, but we’re not so far. I’ll stay here for a little while, and then one day, one ordinary day where the sun fills the apricots so they tumble off of trees and bruise and the people skip in happy steps to the movie theater, I’ll be released from the heaviness. I don’t need to rush it. I wish you hadn’t either, but you’re up there dancing in the sky and I know everything is alright.
Track 9- Sew Your Heart by Kim Kyung Hee
Up to this point, I’d forgotten all about getting the COVID shot. I bet you did, too. Isn’t it crazy what the power of music can do?
Now I remember, and the apricot pit in my stomach bobs up and down again. But I bring a hand to my shoulder and I breathe and I look through the blinds, willing the tides to die down. It’s April, and soon, a year will have passed. A year of isolation, isolation that killed you and infected me. But I won’t let it win. I won’t let its brother, fear, win either.
I have an arsenal of angels standing behind me now. Try to look at me through your telescope from heaven, Will, and tell me what you see. If you’re zoomed out really far, you’ll see the whole world behind me. If you twist the knob a little, it decreases to a nation of strangers. Then, zoom in a bit more, and you’ll see my mom.
Next to my mom is my boyfriend, who reminds me that heaviness isn’t always bad and that it’s what packed earth and a firm handshake and night drives from the airport are made of. At his shoulder is my father, and Will’s father, and they both look into my eyes and tell me It’s not your fault.
The telescope is focused all the way in, now, but all you can see is one person. She’s got blonde hair and a smile you probably know of. She’s waving, see? At you. And she’s telling you that she finally has herself, after 17 years. She finally has herself.
Now zoom out again, real far. What do you see? What makes up your universe? Was I written into its soundtrack?
You probably had a symphony prepared for every person you met. That’s who you were. I wish I could be half as wonderful of a composer as you. Damn my Icelandic genes-- they had one job!
I’m not sure if they have Spotify up there, but here’s the link if you want to hear my premier.