Michael - 'Music for Our Wounds'

by Michael Whitman

Michael - 'Music for Our Wounds'

Michael with his son, Breck, in 1976.

The recounting of almost every suicide survivor's story starts with the shock that someone close and dear has died this way, discovering it in person or, as I did, by telephone. Then follows the now-familiar progression through the stages and issues of grief that each "Lifesavers" reader knows: shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression and all the stages beyond. Each person's timetable varies, though, and the style of grieving we develop is unique to each of us.

My journal entries from the first days after the death of my son, Breck, make me wonder: How did we, how did I, get through those days, and the nights? And through the tasks, which included so many social and commercial interactions that involved supercharged emotions.

My family started in shock: we had to terminate our vacation in Maryland and drive home to New Hampshire, quickly planning for California, where Breck had hanged himself. I almost convinced myself as I drove north—there was little car-conversation at this point—that he must have been murdered, but how could I get the police on the case? A call to California from a roadside telephone squashed that attempt at denial, when I was told that it was clearly suicide. 

Friends welcomed us at our house when we drove in, with hugs, flowers, food and tears; someone had already booked cross-country flights for us. I remember clearly two events from the next day: first, sitting down to write Breck's obituary. I'd glanced at many and read some, and I'd even thought recently that I should start gathering some factual milestones in my elderly parents' lives, but I never imagined writing about my boy's death. I got no more on the screen than "Santa Barbara, CA—Breck Whitman, 23..." before my hands rose to my face, and I wept with the sobs that shake one's entire body. The words came eventually, because I wouldn't leave this task to anyone else, but what a terrible assignment it was.

The second memorable event of that day was a close friend's first performance of a song she had just written about Breck's passing, which she wanted to play for us before we flew out to his funeral. A gifted pianist and choral director, Sydney Long had known Breck for many years, and she told us that this song had come to her the night before, essentially in final form. 

Her song captures the heart of our grief, familiar to each of us, in its opening lines: 

"I wish I could have held you, 
I wish I could have taken your hand, 
And kept you safe with my love, from your darkness." 

This was my first experience with applying music to a raw wound, and it hurt and soothed at the same time. Tears flowed, and although they may have been tears of healing, I was conscious only of my pain. I never imagined how much music would help me, and someday enable me to help others.

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The best songs I've found have a universality that gives them meaning to survivors of any fatal tragedy.

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Music immediately became a companion for me and a very dependable source of comfort as I began to live with loss. I listened often to a homemade tape from Sydney of quiet piano pieces, lullabies and "Breck's Song," and it was like non-prescription medication, particularly helpful at bedtime.

I didn't know why certain music soothed me so well, and early in my grieving I didn't care why, any more than I care much about how Ibuprofen reduces muscle aches. I was aware that topical songs about grieving gave deeper solace than quiet instrumentals that often calmed me down, perhaps because I could tell the artists were sharing what they had learned from the same emotional hell I was going through. This was listening as meditation, and music became a focus in my healing.

I appreciated "Breck's Song" intensely because it was our family's lament, a piece of intimate tragedy that Sydney had captured. Before long, after I knew every note of my homemade comfort-tape, I branched out to other songs and music, including the gorgeous theme of Ken Burns' Civil War soundtrack, "Ashokan Farewell." Eric Clapton's "Tears In Heaven" was often on the radio that year, and I rediscovered "Adam's Song" on an old album by Jackson Browne, a haunting reminiscence about a friend who had either fallen or jumped to his death.

These and other songs formed the soundtrack for my journey "from mourning to morning," as Rev. Sally Bailey of New Haven calls it, following steps familiar to AFSP members. Time off from work, one-on-one with a therapist, S.O.S. sharing, plus a lot of reading about the issues that can weigh survivors down helped me gain awareness of gradual changes, move toward an "other-directed" phase of healing. 

Most survivors in S.O.S. gradually change roles from receiving support to providing it to newer members of the group. A couple of years into my survival, I realized that I could give back to the S.O.S. community by sharing with others what had helped me so much. The project was simple: figure out how to produce a CD of healing, memorial songs, as a new music resource! Distilling the best of my growing catalog of healing music into what could be released on a series of CDs would also facilitate transporting my collection of albums to bereavement support venues. 

It was quite a task for a first-time producer to get the required permissions for songs and performances from publishers and record labels, but my sense of purpose was matched by the musicians' enthusiasm for having their songs included in the first major collection of memorial songs to be released, especially a benefit album for bereavement support. Songs, like fiction, are based on their authors' life experiences, and the depth and beauty of these songs about loss and grieving reflects how profoundly the artists have been touched by their end-of-life experiences. More than an interesting footnote, it's an indication of how important these songs are to the musicians that many are the title songs of the albums they were released on, often with no explanation about the origins of these very personal songs.

Interviewing the artists for the album liner notes confirmed that these songs sprang from intense emotional experiences, and each song captures the essence of the stage of grieving it came from. A good example is Tim O'Brien's song "Time To Learn," which focuses on an experience familiar to any survivor of suicide: it takes a long time to learn—to really learn, and accept—that someone who was a part of our life until shortly ago, is now gone.

Weeks after Breck's death, I began to think I wasn't going to get beyond heavy, constant grieving. The chorus of Tim's song—"In the empty hours when you miss them so / It takes time to learn to let them go"—helped me realize that my extended grieving was normal after a suicide. I found the song a medium for gentle teaching, and came to believe that lessons associated with memorable melody lines help people remember the message as they move on. 

The reason these songs work so well is that they capture emotions and feelings with the reality of shared personal experience, a flavor that cannot be invented by someone untouched by loss. It is healing to be reassured by others' experiences, and to feel that we are not alone in each stage of grief. 

The best songs I've found have a universality that gives them meaning to survivors of any fatal tragedy. Survivors of suicide will recognize familiar ground in songs with titles like these from the first two volumes of Before Their Time, even though only one was written after a suicide: "No Time To Say Goodbye," "Didn't You Think Anybody Loved You?" "Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth," "Turning Toward The Morning," "Who Will Sing Me Lullabies?"

AFSP provided a grant to cover the cost of sending a copy of Before Their Time to each of the more than 300 S.O.S. groups in the United States, for use in their meetings, services or lending libraries. AFSP will receive a portion of the revenue from all future album sales. 

Sharing music for bereavement support has been part of my own healing journey, and has created a memorial to all those we've lost "before their time," not only to suicide but to other kinds of traumatic loss as well. I am grateful that many listeners have posted notes on the Guest Page at www.beforetheirtime.org about how the music has helped them, and how they share it with others.

Martha Barton, executive director of Pikes Peak Hospice, points out that Before Their Time music is a powerful communication form that makes an excellent accompaniment to books about grief and bereavement. I agree that music's ability to communicate feelings heart to heart, person to person, gives it an immediacy that can deliver a message of comfort and hope at crucial moments, including times when reading isn't even possible, or practical.

I will always be grateful for having found this service project, which by providing help and comfort to others has helped and comforted me. I have finally understood Iris Bolton's advice to look for a gift within the experience of my trauma. Throughout it all should shine a collective gratitude for the songwriters' and musicians' gifts that help us celebrate life, of which loss is an integral part.

Michael Whitman has lectured and given workshops on the healing properties of music, and has served as a music consultant for exhibitions, films and television. The music onBefore Their Time has been featured on many regional and national radio programs, and feature stories about this project have appeared in major metropolitan newspapers.