It Takes one Song to Unlock Grief

Mourning Mamie on the Paris Métro

Métro Le Peletier, Rue de la Victoire in the 9th arrondissement, Paris, France photo by author

I crank up the volume as I emerge into the sunshine after a week cooped up in my father’s condo with the flu.

Still unsteady on my feet, I look like Bambi on ice but I’m grateful for the invigorating combination of fresh air, a new album by a Portuguese artist I discovered the night before, and the prospect of an afternoon on my own.

Moments of respite have been quite rare since I flew back to Europe at the end of December 2018 and even though all I’m doing is running errands, it’s a good day for it. The bus is still nine minutes away so I decide to walk to the Métro at brisk pace instead. I crank up the volume again so it’ll block out the city sounds and then it happens.

A slap in the face followed by a kick to the stomach as a song I hadn’t heard yet wrenches my heart out of my chest. Shaking my head no and taking a deep breath, I will myself to keep walking, faster now, as I force myself to listen to every single note, every single word.

Soon, I can’t breathe and I can’t see the road either.

The grief I’ve carried for years crushes me all at once and the tears roll down my cheeks, unbidden.

During 5 minutes and 14 seconds, Mamie — my grandma — comes back to life with words I wish I had written myself, words I thought about for years before she died.

When she did, I wasn’t there.

When my family buried her, I wasn’t there.

During the five years I lost to major depressive disorder, I stopped listening to music.

In November 2018, I subscribed to a streaming music service and proceeded to reconnect with an art form I’ve adored since I was a baby in my cot giggling and wriggling at the radio. Why I denied myself the comforts of music for so long is something I still can’t explain, not even with hindsight.

All I know is that I could not bear to listen to it for the longest time.

When it came to Portuguese, it was the same. Once I filed my last newspaper column — one written in the first person about domestic abuse and hinting at much worse — I shelved the language altogether. Because I live in an area in the Pacific Northwest where there are few native speakers and no cultural institutes, it was easy; I could simply pretend Portuguese didn’t exist.

And I did just that for seven years, silencing a vibrant part of my cultural identity, albeit one I wasn’t born with but acquired by choice as an adult. For three years in the Azores, I lived in Portuguese, I worked in Portuguese, I dreamed in Portuguese, and yes, I loved in Portuguese. The language itself is one of the defining love stories of my life, one that upended it once and is transforming it again.

In this context, listening to Portuguese artists marks a turning point in how I deal with my mental health and take care of myself. Both music and Portuguese are bringing me back to life after five years tangling with an illness that almost killed me.

The relationship I have with the language of Pessoa is nothing short of extraordinary, vital, precious. It’s the one language that reaches places within other language cannot access. As I became a Lusophone, I discovered a heretofore hidden dimension, a sensibility I never knew I had. I came into my own, as if learning Portuguese were some secret rite of passage I didn’t know I needed to go through to become a full-fledged person.

While it isn’t surprising a Portuguese song should unlock the grief I had carried and repressed since 2015, I can’t say I expected it.

My beloved paternal grandmother died at 96 exactly a week before the Bataclan carnage in November 2015.

She had been in a nursing home for years. When I was little, my then feuding parents would leave me in her care for the summer. She lived in a small village in the middle of fields in Northern France, and those summers were the very definition of a bucolic postcard. I’d collect fossils from the bottom of the garden among the peonies, wave at my grandfather driving past on his tractor, eat buttered baguette dunked in hot chocolate for breakfast…

Before she got married, my grandmother ran the one local café and grocery store with her sister. Throughout her life, she was held in high esteem by all those who knew her, even the nursing home staff right until the end.

My grandma always seemed to find something to smile about and was the very definition of kindness. No matter who you spoke to, that was the first thing people said about her when she was alive, and they still do now that she no longer is.

When she relinquished her grip on life, she was very diminished and no longer fully conscious. To quote my father, she was “used up”. Even though it was her time to go, this didn’t make her death any easier to accept.

And I was on the other side of the world when it happened, grounded in America by illness and hardship. I couldn’t even afford to send flowers, much less be there for my father like I had been when my grandfather died some twenty years before. And so I never penned the eulogy I had spent years thinking about, I never paid my last respects.

I let my family down in every possible way.

For a whole week, I cried myself to sleep behind closed doors, without anyone to hold me or share my pain. To my husband, grandparents were an unknown concept. And because I was so ashamed of my helplessness and reduced circumstances, I didn’t feel I had any right to grieve openly either.

During a makeshift wake that lasted seven nights, I carried on a conversation with my grandmother in my head, asking her to forgive me, asking her for advice about how to keep going. I was probably at my lowest point by then, dealing with suicidal ideation on a daily basis without any support or anyone to talk to.

Apart from my dead grandma, that is.

Somehow, I pulled through. I packed away my grief and put it in a corner of my mind, to be dealt with at a later date.

“Your hands were wrinkly and filled with stories,” sings Carolina Deslandes.

Called Nuvem*”, her song is a heartfelt tribute to her grandfather and likely to resonate with anyone who has lost a grandparent. Put it that way, I’m not the only one who had something in her eye while listening to it.

Coming back to Europe after being away for so long keeps having many unexpected side effects. Not only am I getting my family back, but I’m getting myself back, too, as I slowly put together the pieces of the person I was before depression felled me.

Lately, this process has been quite painful. My father quite hasn’t forgiven me yet for disappearing off to America and concealing my illness, and neither has my mother. If I said nothing, it’s because I wanted to protect my parents and let them enjoy their retirement. After all, I’m an adult — and a married woman to boot — so it shouldn’t be up to them to pick up the pieces if anything goes wrong.

That responsibility rests squarely on my shoulders.

As the song makes me come undone time and again over the course of an afternoon because I’m listening to the album on a loop, I can’t help but wonder how best to be present for my parents as my stepmom undergoes further treatment for Stage IV cancer. Now isn’t the time to let them down again and I won’t, no matter what it takes. During her latest oncology consultation, we received the dates for her fourth chemotherapy protocol; it will run until the end of 2019 and we already know she’ll be undergoing some kind of treatment for the rest of her life.

Music is the glue that’s been holding me together since last November. It gives me strength whenever I need it, it helps me conjure up instant focus, and it part of how I’m reactivating my Portuguese, too. Often, it triggers strong emotions, like joy.

Or its opposite.

And so I cry on the Champs-Élysées, I cry looking up at the moon, I cry watching the sunset over the Arc de Triomphe, I cry reading text messages from Lisbon and Amsterdam. My eyes are leaking feels all over Paris and that’s fine. From the corner of my eye, I spot another woman alone wearing white earbuds and walking around. She looks sad and her cheeks are streaked, too.

Exhausted after spending a whole night up, being on my feet all afternoon, and the unexpected return of my outsize grief, I can’t hold it in anymore on the Métro back to Dad’s.

It was inevitable Europe would change me and this is what has been happening for the last eight months. While I’m hesitant to call this healing as mine is a chronic illness I’ll never get rid of, something is definitely going on: I’m coming back to life, against all odds.

Regaining full use and control of my skills and abilities calls for adjustments, patience, and more self-acceptance than ever. Embracing radical honesty is how I was able to recover my writing voice after it went missing for five years and it affects everything.

“It’s a little weird this random crying thing,” I text a friend as I realize I’m neither ashamed nor embarrassed about being in tears on the Paris Métro. “I don’t mind crying in public, I’m human,” I type as the tears crash on my smartphone screen. Nevertheless, I add that I’m a bit surprised at how long it took me to be able to grieve.

“You know, remembering someone is the only way to make them immortal,” my friend replies.

[*cloud]

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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