Last week, we went to see Sufjan Stevens pour his heart out on the stage to a completely silent, solemn theatre filled with an assortment of plaid, beards, and thrift store treasures. His most recent album, Carrie & Lowell, a tribute to his mother, is a testament to unresolved grief and the inevitable need to work through and learn to live with loss. The raw passion of his words and performance was a shared experience. His vulnerability, honourable.
For the first part of the show, Sufjan told the story of his struggles through song. There was none of the customary concert banter, until a sililoquy-esque talk about death about mid-way through. As a child, he experienced the tragic death of a classmate, and pondered the grief counsellor’s words;
“He no longer occupies this space, because now he occupies our hearts. The life that he no longer has is now our lives, and he lives within us. We are sort of walking vessels, living testimonials of him.
I thought that was really special, and really interesting to think about, this sense of death occupying us in a way that can be very encouraging and fruitful, offering a kind of freedom and joy in living for those who lived before us.”
As I sat, tissue in hand and tears rolling down my cheeks, I thought about Owen and our struggle to live with the unexpected, yet our determination to live in his honour. I could relate. Throughout the show, I watched a man expose the depths of his fragile heart in harmony with emotional truth. The music and performance highlighted the discord of the unexpected, the unwanted feelings that grief relentlessly presents. His words, filled with wisdom, resonated. It was a powerful night that I am thankful to have been a part of. Sufjan Stevens has welcomed the world to share in his sadness, his anger, his confusion, his longing, his love, his joy – his grief. His poetic voice is a beautiful tribute to loss.
Since our son died, we have scoured the internet, reading and digesting, desperately looking for answers, for understanding, for hope. We have found words of support. Of empathy, sentiment and wisdom. Words spoken that seem to speak to us directly, reflecting a commonality in the experience of loss. We have appreciated the willingness of some to openly grieve and share in their experience with the world. Revealing the light in the dark; the possibility of its presence. Without this, I am not sure if survival would seem viable.
On the stage, Sufjan Stevens’ words are his contribution to the grieving heart, seeking to offer solace, but also to offer understanding. He does not have the answers (unfortunately, nobody does), but he offers the opportunity for thought. He talks about how you must sit with grief. He talks about our inability to change the past. He talks about the emptiness. He talks about how once you open yourself to grief, there can be moments of light and fond memory. He talks about how his world revolves around his loss, how everything he sees and feels acts as a beautiful reminder. He gets grief because he is living with it.
Grief is not something that you ever want anyone else to feel, to truly understand its weight, but it is oddly comforting to know that you are not alone. That others who have come before you, or are walking with you, have worked and are working to break the stigma surrounding loss. You do not have to suffer in silence. The willingness to share the experience helps to lighten the load, to know that your feelings are normal along this emotional and unpredictable journey.
Death is a reality of life. It makes people uncomfortable, but it is inescapable. Unfortunately, some lives are taken far (far) too soon. It does not make sense, and is most definitely unjust. I will never claim to understand or even accept that my son had to die. I will learn how to live with it, but I will never be ok with it. What we do have, is each other. The more we openly talk about our grief, about the death of those we love, the more we will be able to offer the support necessary to endure and live with loss.