"Not a week goes by when I don’t listen to Bob Dylan"Flickr - mtarvainen

I have a handful of close friends who were able to provide me with glimmers of catharsis during grief-slumps at Cambridge. These were best friends, or people going through similar bereavements. But in my total aversion to disclosing the personal with new friends, I failed to consider the possibility that any one of them may be enduring precisely what I was — and feeling, no doubt, unable to vocalise their own isolation.

The notion that beyond my circle of friends, hundreds of students in the same university were, and will be, grieving not only for a parent but for a sibling, a cousin, or a best friend was a reminder I sorely needed. It’s easy to forget, but nobody is exempt from personal tragedy. And more people than I knew were bereaved, struggling to balance work and heartache, and just as needy of emotional outlets as I was.

Of course, we all mourn in different ways. But seeing one of my friends share a playlist dedicated to her father after his death, I considered that, of all outlets, art is one of the most profoundly intimate.

“The intimacy of art has a corrosive effect on emotional blockades”

Heartbreak inevitably lifts veils of understanding that often shroud music, film, literature. After my dad died, I listened in particular to three songs almost on repeat, feeling an unfamiliar sensation of both help and hurt as I did so. I continue to listen to them now: Leon Bridges, River; Bob Dylan, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright; and The Sound of Music’s Edelweiss.

Leon Bridges - 'River'

There were other songs, too, and I’m sure I will discover or recall new songs with the progression of time. But in the early weeks of Michaelmas term, unwilling to broach the subject of death yet again with old friends, and unable to share it with new, I turned consistently to artistic expression for relief. Formal words alone cannot render grief as understood, nor can they communicate it. But art has always tapped into the sorrows of the human soul to express them in astute and unexpected ways. Why else should we tear up at Auld Lang Syne? There are things of which we cannot speak—not from choice but from capacity. These marked the absolute limits of my honesty with friends and family. And yet the intimacy of art has a corrosive effect on emotional blockades.

Not a week goes by when I don’t listen to Bob Dylan.

We have a friend whose husband died several years ago, now, who finds herself unable to listen to certain songs she listened to with her husband, so overwhelmed is she with emotion. Heartbreak is a funny thing. I learnt that my dad had died via phone call a week after I had set off for a six-month trip to Australia. Days later, on an emergency flight home, I found that though The Sound of Music was a featured film on the flight, I couldn’t watch it. Even the title screen hurt to look at. I settled on Mary Poppins — essentially subbing one Julie Andrews film for another. I still cried inexplicably.

Loss makes us rethink art. But, as is in the paradoxical nature of grief, art inevitably makes us rethink loss. Sometimes conversations — however supportive — simply cannot do the same.


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Mountain View

Lost in grief

I, too, have a playlist entitled Dad. There are songs I listen to that I never got the chance to listen to with him. They still provide the strange kind of relief the other songs on the playlist afford. There are words that act as reminders, words that act as my own — though I never could have rendered them — words that act as a chance for renewal. Equally, there are films I watch because I watched them with him; not at all highbrow, not remotely emotional, that in watching make me feel closer to him. There are films I watch now which make me weep all the more because of their new context, just as there are narratives I watch and rewatch to help me understand my own.

We grieve in different ways. But art helps. To those mourning: immerse yourself in it, however briefly. Cry or laugh or cringe at the favourite film of the person you miss. Sob or smile to their most beloved song. One of the Latin words I remember my dad hammering home to me — hilariously, as we watched The Island — was renovatio: renewal. Friends, art, nature, memory — these are what provide us with that. And this is how, in Cambridge, of all places, we carry on in spite of tragedy

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