Almost two years ago, my mother passed away very suddenly. I will never forget the moment I found out, the pain in my father’s voice, or the task of calling my grandmother to inform her. I had some amazing friends who stepped in to help, but that didn’t stop grief from enveloping me. The program I was in at the time was not what you would call supportive of the grieving process. They grudgingly gave me a week off but after that it was full steam ahead, and keeping busy is one thing but trying to juggle a tough academic curriculum while your brain is hazy from grief is almost impossible. I was made to feel abnormal for taking “too long” to mourn, which helped send me down the rabbit hole of depression (again). Post-secondary institutions talk a good game but when it comes down to it, their mental health programs aren’t exactly stellar and even in a program that talks a LOT about mental health there were faculty members who openly suggested that maybe it wasn’t grief or depression, maybe I just couldn’t hack it.
So down I tumbled into the rabbit hole. I couldn’t sleep properly, began to doubt my ability to do anything correctly, and the gremlins in my mind that feed on negative thoughts grew fat and bloated. I began to contemplate suicide, but knew my dad and the dog needed me and I couldn’t bear the thought of bringing them more pain.
Most days I’d leave school and cry in my car for the whole way home. I lost interest in pretty much everything since it took all my energy to simply get through the day. School friends would try to cheer me up but I was beyond ‘down’. I wondered if I would ever feel a spectrum of emotions again. There were days when it hurt slightly less but I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t even close to happy. Happiness was something reserved for other people, I felt like happiness was an island but no matter how hard I swam, I never got any closer to it.
Before mum’s death, music had been a big part of my life. I was in an amazing concert band with tons of great musicians and friends; I was also a member of the Argonotes – the official band of the Toronto Argonauts, which I adored because it was a fun side of music. There weren’t any long rehearsals or complicated scores to learn but there were team songs, rock standards, a musical puns like playing “hold that tiger” when the team got a holding penalty against the Hamilton Ticats or the Jeopardy theme when a play was under review. Mum’s death occurred right at the end of the football season, and I’m forever thankful for the band members who came out to the visitation, because it was something to remind me of who I had been just a few days before.
With no more football games to play at and being too mentally drained to keep playing in the concert band, music slipped away. I stopped listening to it because a song would come on the radio or a CD that would remind me of mum and it would feel like the wound on my heart was ripped wide open again. In not listening to music, however, I lost a huge piece of myself. I’m that girl you see singing in her car at a stoplight. I often joked that I’d seen Great Big Sea so many times (24 – number 25 was supposed to have been the night of mum’s funeral and I couldn’t go) that I sometimes feel like an honourary Newfoundlander. I memorized songs and listened for the little extras that made songs stand out – the tin whistle over a guitar line, a bodhrán being played with a feather light touch, a harmony that was not quite what you expected but was so much more complex than you believed possible. I was a junkie and with mum’s death I went cold turkey. (I’d been to a number of Great Big Sea concerts with my parents and there were a lot of memories tied to the songs). I thought that by cutting music out I was preventing pain, but what I was really doing was preventing joy.
I did keep checking Facebook during this time, even if I didn’t post as much and it was a Facebook post that put me on the road to coming to terms with, and helping me cope with my depression. It was on Sean McCann’s Facebook page. I remember the date clearly – January 23, 2014. The picture showed up in my news feed – with Sean resting his head against a wall. The text talked about how those “banging your head against a wall” days were actually the best days because they teach us how to help our selves. That was my light bulb moment, when I realized that nothing was going to get better unless I actively worked to make it better. The post went on to say “We can’t control the world, but we can control our own actions”. It ended with the best advice I’ve seen on Facebook: “When in doubt always look for the Love”. What was odd about the whole situation was that I hadn’t seen ANY of Sean’s postings about Help Your Self – even though I had liked the page, Facebook’s algorithm had done its thing and had hidden the posts from me. I don’t know what it was that made this particular post show up in my feed – whether it was fate, kismet, or a little nudge from my mum – but I believe I was meant to see that message at that moment.
The first step to helping yourself is admitting that you have a problem, and as Sean himself said on Tuesday night during his concert at the Kitchener-Waterloo Little Theatre (KWLT), it’s a hard step to take because nobody wants to admit that there’s something wrong with them. I knew that there was definitely something wrong with me – that the grief I was feeling had snowballed out of control and morphed into depression. I knew I needed help, so I called my family doctor, who managed to see me within a few days. She agreed that this wasn’t grief, it was something bigger. My medical history is somewhat complex, so we chose to explore some non pharmaceutical interventions (with the exception of a sleep aid since I’d been sleeping less than 3 hours a night for 3 months and exhaustion was not helping my mental state at all). I found a counselor to talk with who specialized in grief counselling.
The funny thing about all of this is, that while I have quite a few friends with depression and have never judged them for it, I did judge myself. I gave those little voices in my head (made stronger by my program’s administration’s lack of support) power over my self-worth. With the help of my counselor, I told those nagging little voices to shut up. It felt so good. One session, about a month or so into the process, I mentioned to my counselor that I was worried about the narrow range of emotions I was feeling – I wasn’t as down as I had been when I first went to see him, but I wasn’t happy either. I wasn’t even content, I was simply existing. My counselor is a very pragmatic man and when I told him this, he looked at me and asked “well, what made you happy before your mum died”? My immediate response was music. He then asked why I wasn’t still listening to music, and I explained that I was afraid it would hurt too much. He told me it would hurt but that if we want to experience joy, we can’t be afraid to experience pain.
I sat in my car for awhile after the appointment, cried a little, and then turned on the CD player. It’d been almost 4 months since I’d listened to it so I had no clue what was going to come on, and given my car CD collection contains everything from The Beatles to Metallica and Great Big Sea, it really could have been anything. As fate would have it, it was Sean McCann’s former band mate Alan Doyle’s debut solo album Boy on Bridge, and the song was My Day. This is the final verse of My Day:
Can’t say what’s Fortune’s drumming
Can’t wait to see what’s coming
Hell or Highwater I’m off and running
I started crying again, but took it as a sign from the musical powers that be. I digitally ordered Sean McCann’s Help Your Self (there weren’t physical copies of it at that point even though I’m still that person who loves CDs over digital downloads), and spent a lot of time listening to Boy on Bridge, Help Your Self, and the Great Big Sea album that saw me through heartbreak and change – Something Beautiful. (I’m not even going to attempt to pick a favourite GBS album, but Something Beautiful came out during a really rough period in my life and I played the whole album on repeat for a few weeks straight until I knew every word to every song, so I’ve got a really strong emotional connection to the album). I fell asleep to them, I woke up to them, I listened in the car, I listened while doing homework. They became my constant companions, and while some of the songs on Something Beautiful reminded me of mum, the more I listened to them, the less it hurt and the more I could smile at the memories. Music became my salvation. I took up the bodhrán again – I found that while I’m still not very good (and should not use a tipper without a ring to prevent it from flying out of my hand), it brings me joy.
Awhile back, I was fortunate enough to see Alan Doyle on his current tour for his new album So Let’s Go. It’s impossible to go to one of his concerts and not leave a) hoarse from singing at the top of your lungs and b) pumped up – many of the songs have an upbeat tempo and fun chorus (my current obsession is 1,2,3,4 because there’s a quick part in the middle that I’m determined to get all the words right for). On Tuesday, I was sitting at home and lamenting the fact that I couldn’t go see Sean McCann in Toronto for the You Know I Love You tour on Friday because we are heading up to the cottage for Thanksgiving like we always used to do before mum died, when my friend sent me a BBM message about having a spare battery for an old BlackBerry device I’m re-homing to a friend. We were discussing how I could get it from him, and he mentioned that he’d be at the Sean McCann concert that evening at KWLT. I remember hearing about the concert from multiple sources when it was announced but it conflicted with an Argos home game so I’d promptly forgotten about it even when the Argos game got moved to Ottawa.
I figured there weren’t any tickets left, but to my surprise, a quick search confirmed there were. I immediately went to work on finding a place to crash for the night, since I needed to be in Kitchener the following evening for my Pathfinder meeting, and once that was secured, had a record fast shower, threw overnight stuff in a bag, packed my laptop up so I could work during the day on Wednesday and hightailed it (at a safe speed) to KWLT. I found seats, found friends sitting beside me and had a 3 hour sing along with Sean McCann and his amazingly talented opening act Matt Wells. The night was pure magic, for starters, I love that building, having been a (small) part of the rebuilding efforts after the fire in 2002 – helping with painting it and volunteering at fundraisers for the theatre before its grand re-opening in 2009. So to see a star like Sean McCann in the building was awesome to begin with. The way he walked on stage after intermission, doing an a cappella version of Safe Upon the Shore (which has some serious memories for me and made me cry) in a strong, powerful voice, gave me goosebumps. He invited the audience to sing along to a number of songs, basked in the knowledge that he didn’t have or need a set list because it is just him on stage, and at an audience member’s request sang Danny Boy. Of course I cried again during Danny Boy – but not just because that’s what one does. It had more to do with the tenor (pun only slightly intended) of his voice and the purity of the sound. It takes guts to stand on a stage and belt out Danny Boy on the spur of the moment, there’s so much that can go wrong with that song but didn’t on Tuesday night. The whole night was amazing. Sean talked very candidly about his battle with addiction, encouraging us to donate to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health because they do amazing things, but could do even more amazing things with a bit more funding. He talked about the split with Great Big Sea and how letting go of the anger he felt helped make him whole again. He seemed infinitely happier on stage than when I saw him at the Dakota in Toronto in 2011. He still put on a great show but there wasn’t the sparkle in his eyes I remembered from the first Great Big Sea concerts. That sparkle was back in abundance on Tuesday, and everyone in the audience felt it.
After the show, both Sean and Matt graciously went out into the lobby and took pictures, chatted, and signed CDs for the audience. I waited at the back of the line, knowing that I wanted to thank him for the role he played (and that his music continues to play) in my recovery. When it came time though, I couldn’t make the words come out. Instead I asked a lame question about bodhrán tippers (though it was also on my mind because his tipper looked very different to mine and seemed to be an extension of his hand), which he graciously answered. I hung around and helped clean things up, mentally kicking myself for chickening out. I firmly believe in thanking people who have an impact in your life, and I froze simply because he’s a star to me. I haven’t had the chance to meet Alan Doyle yet but I suspect I’d freeze just the same when trying to thank them. So instead, I’m doing what I do best, writing. Though putting all of this out there is actually scarier than saying “thank you” would have been. To all the musicians out there, keep at it because you never know how you will affect someone. To Sean and Alan, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.
Beautiful words, my friend. I’m sorry you had such a tough time after your mum passed away, and I can’t tell you happy I am that you’ve found your way back to the music of your heart.
Thank you, my friend.
Being fortunate enough to still have both parents, I can’t imagine what it’s been like for you to have lost your mom, but I’m glad that you’re getting your sparkle back!
As one of my friends put it, it’s something almost all of us will experience. I just got my experience early on.
Ann-Louise Winter says
I’m so relieved to hear of your journey. Thanks f writing. Loss is so hard and I’m told by a friend that grieving can take as long as you, yourself, take. To tell you “how long” you ‘should’ take is unconscionable! Big hugs. BBM me any time. pin:2BE27C79
Thank you. It is easier some days and others just plain suck.
Hi Jenn. Hope you don’t mind my dropping in here — I saw your tweet on Alan Doyle’s feed and came to read your post. It really resonated with me — I too lost my own mom after a very sudden illness almost two years ago, and I’m still working through it, but one of the things that has helped keep me moving forward is this music. In all the haze of grief and exhaustion I remember very distinctly the first time I felt a bit of the spark of emotion that said maybe things could get better was at one of Alan’s shows. I’d had to force myself to get up and out of the house that evening — you know how you can get dragged down — but I’m so glad I did.
So… still working on it, but getting better. Thanks for sharing.
Thank you so much for reading and commenting! Newcomers are always welcome. 🙂 I get the same dragged out feeling, sometimes I force myself to go out, sometimes I let myself stay in and have a tea and TV night. It’s all about balance. I’m happy you felt the spark again too – it’s a great thing when you suddenly see land after being adrift in the grief ocean. I’m pretty sure neither of us will ever ‘get over’ the sudden loss of our mom but I hope we can both find a new normal and move along, because something beautiful is waiting.
Erica G says
Jenn, such a lovely post about a difficult topic. Music definitely has healing powers and as a huge GBS fan myself, I can certainly appreciate how impactful their music can be.