Being Safe Enough to Explore Grief & Loss
IS GRIEF AND INVITATION?
One might say that the difficulty with saying no, or failing to respond is that grief waits for us. The event may have passed, the loss be long gone yet one morning you wake up and the entire party has shown up, uninvited on our doorstep.
To grieve is to work under the horizon and as with any invitation, I had to wait for my own answer to that call. The truth is, no one I know of really wants to make an album on death and grief. Much like grief itself, it ultimately comes for you. The great paradox of grief is that it forces individuation and yet it is the time of deepest need for communal interaction and tradition.
My walkabout in exploring the grief process was long and traversed many cultures; from funeral marches in New Orleans, African tribal traditions and ancient Egyptian sites, it was intriguing. I learned some of this music and wanted to explore grief musically in all corners of the world. (Celtic Lamentations - Healing for Twelve Months and a Day)
Yet, as ever, I ended up back in my own culture. It’s easy to leave home. It’s just that that clay is never going to leave you… And I wanted to see how people in the past had dealt with grief and what traditions might be salvaged and used in a very real way to understand the process of grief in a modern world.
Did I find any answers? Yes and no. No, I could never advise anyone else how to go about grieving. Yes, I did find songs and traditions that were of great comfort and reminded me that loss is universal; that many others had walked that road and most importantly the ancestors had left everything they could in music and song. It was all in the music. And sometimes that was enough.
There were practical aspects too, such as keening, (singing) to “get it out,” to release emotion. But mostly, it was in the songs and the music carried down from one generation to the next. Some traditions helped me to understand the “why” of certain behaviors of the grieving.
Music was the guide that facilitated a desire to answer the invitation and created the safety to explore grief and loss and then to share it with others.
IRISH MUSIC AND GRIEF AND LOSS
The Irish music tradition is blessed with a myriad of laments, keens and music for mourning. As harpists, the nuns would have introduced us to Edward Bunting. Bunting attended the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792. It was essentially the last gathering of the great harpers. The great tradition of the harper was coming to an end but he still managed to manuscript much of their music and became so enamored with the harpers that collecting the old and ancient music of Ireland became his life’s work.
The Bunting collection as it is known has in its annals many Caoineadh’s (lament) or Gol’ (an Irish/Gaelic word meaning “Cry”) . We can’t know how they were sung. What is clear from that collection and others is that the tradition of the “lament” was hard wired in Irish culture. And it ran the gamut from high art to guttural wails.
WOMEN IN THE IRISH KEENING TRADITION; Grief Fully Expressed
Keening Song : Mysts of Time, Track 6
Song of Keening: Celtic Lamentations, Track 10 (Improvised with Eugene (Cello) & Scott (Keyboards)
In many cultures, women served as the singers or conduit almost, at times of grief and loss. This ran from the time of the news of death until the end of the funerary rite. Since women are closer to birth, many cultures view women as being closer to the earth and death.
Certainly, the tradition of “keening women” was strong in much of Western Europe and even though it was frowned on and became almost low class over time, it served a strong folkloric function in the rituals of grief.
The central thing to note about keening women is that they served to express the grief and loss for the entire community, Banshee - ARTICLE, it was not necessary for everyone present to do the same or rise to the same level of emotion and action. As long as the grief was expressed and acted out, then the traditions and norms were considered fulfilled.
Traditionally, the idea of not having a keening woman or keening women was close to sacrilege since the thinking was that every human soul deserved to be mourned.
KEENING, KEENING WOMEN & GRIEF AND LOSS
The initial reactions to death often found women untying their hair. (women always wore their hair up). If we think of open fires and the practicalities, it’s easy to understand why).
This was a way of signaling the world that all was not well and events were out of the ordinary. Anyone who would happen upon the sight of a woman with her hair undone and wailing was sure to know an “our of the ordinary “ event had taken place. This is where the ‘gol’ more guttural singing usually took place. It was likely closer to a wail than singing, altho it looks like it had a sing-songey feel with within a narrow melodic range.
What this essentially marked or detonated was that the world had stopped for the bereaved. It seems strange to modern day thinking until we consider the feeling that accompanies death, the sense that the world Should stop. In fact, who does the world think it is going on with itself when grief visits? That sense of the surreal in the everyday in response to grief - how might that be broken? In some strange way, beating of the chest, wailing and tearing your hair out starts to look like as good a response as any. Interestingly, this behavior was probably more the case in instances of sudden death. It would not have been acceptable for women to behave this way at any other time.
I often ask myself how I might “let my hair down” at such times. What do I need to do to slow the world in the face of what’s happening? Of course I can’t slow down anything. However, that traditional social contract, giving permission to women in particular to act out and respond to the initial shock feels wise and kind. It’s the “how can this be.” And since it is, everything is treated as the world being off its axis.
PROFESSIONAL KEENING WOMEN & THE FUNERARY RIGHT
Professional keeners or Keening Women in Ireland, as they were called, were paid for their services. And much like those souls who have a gift for working with the dying or hospice patients, they were considered a breed unto themselves.
The singing itself appears to be reflective of the social mores. There were certain structures in place e.g. the singing tended to swoop rapidly from high notes to lo notes. But the singer had a wide berth on which to express their own vocal variations or embellishments. Sometimes the words were vocables but generally there were specific cries such as “Oh My love,” “cad a dheanadh me, gan tu” (Irish / Gaelic meaning “what will I do without you.” Again, while they were drawing from tradition while embellishing it with their own grief expressions. They were highly emotional and expressive, sometimes even primal as mentioned. It was at its core -grief fully expressed.
KEENING IN IRELAND OF LOVED ONES, GRIEF AND LOSS
Keening was not confined to professional keening women. There are accounts from Irish wakes, that most shamrockized of Irish institutions…
So, women and men often keened during the wake as they sat, sometimes over a few days. We’ve all seen the movie; food and drink were laid on. Sometimes the games played at wakes were intriguing. (more on this another time!) And the community gathered to “wake” the departed.
One of the most high art Laments comes from the wife of Airt O’Laoire (Caoineadh Airt I Laoire). “Caoineadh” refers to lament but the Gaelic/Irish version is closer to “crying.”
While this ‘high art’ type of lament and perhaps considered the finest formal Lament to come down to us. It was likely highly emotional and expressive also but it was not likely to have had the primary stirring of the ‘gol” (cry)
In fully expressing grief through song, keening women acted out the grief of the entire community and so served to cauterize the wound, for everyone…
FORMAL LAMENTS IN THE IRISH SINGING TRADITION: Caoineadh Airt I Laoire
In truth, “Caoineadh” refers to lament but the Gaelic/Irish actual meaning is closer to “crying.” The Caoineadh for Airt is considered to be in the ‘high art’ variety. It was well documented and researched. It is sung by Airt’s surviving wife and it beautifully serves to illustrate the wisdom of these rituals in small communities, where staying on good terms with “neighbors,” was a matter of basic survival.
One of the most intriguing aspects of keening is that it can go back and forth, particularly among the women.
In this formal lament, Airt’s wife and his mother essentially had a conversation in song.
It is clear that Airt’s mother disapproves of her daughter-in-law.
His mother sings “ I never left your wake for a moment” in clear admonishment of her daughter-in-law who had. Her daughter-in-law, when her turn came to sing again addressing the departed Airt in saying “I never left your side except to tend to your child.” (paraphrasing) To be clear, they do not speak directly to each other but make their feelings known by each addressing the dead. (There’s a humorous side to it. He’s dead and they’re still putting him in the middle!)
BREAKING SOCIAL NORMS FOR WOMEN THROUGH GRIEF TRADITIONS
This back and forth in song, especially between the women reportedly as not uncommon. There are similar accounts of this back and forth singing in Indian funerary rites also.
In a society where equality was non-existent and roles clearly delineated and dictated by harsh circumstances, the funerary rite and particularly these singing traditions served as an outlet, a release for women to air their grievances. Long story short, they got it out.
To sing these songs is to be slowed down. And I’m struck, yet again, by the wisdom of expressing harsh emotions or resentments in song. Having to sing and keep within the structure of the vocals gives a body a little time to consider words carefully. Were these words spoken, I think it’s fair to say they might not be as considered.
And the structure of the songs themselves, while allowing for broad embellishment, interpretation and expression still acted as a kind of container or vessel for emotions running high so that nothing got too out of hand. Of course, they’re still Irish funerals - all bets are off!
GRIEF & MOURNING LAMENTS; Giving a Voice to Women
This formal vocal expression of grievances didn’t just apply to the women. The deceased was often the target! The formal funerary setting was one of the few where women could give voice to familial and social frustration.
While the lament itself tended to be “full on” in terms of intense expression of emotion, the words were often more measured, altho it didn’t necessarily dilute their clear meaning.
A great example is when the deceased was given the back-handed compliment e.g. “And you only hit me once.” As horrifying as it is in modern times to read back on these lyrics - by scratching the surface deeper, it’s clear that she’s ‘outing’ him. She’s letting his family and community know what happened - but in a measured way.
Given the formal sense of the singing, it’s seems likely that these ‘true confessions’ were not revisited outside the funerary rituals.
On the one hand, it looks bizarre and yet on another level, the idea of a woman being able to purge herself of shame, especially as a result of the actions of others, and in the face of their death must have been cathartic.
Complicated grief, as it’s now-called, was often handled this way in Irish tradition. When marriage was a seal for life and in a pre-psychology era, how were people to continue fulfilling the tasks of everyday life without opportunity to get things off their chest and move on. A stylized sing-off!
FUNERAL KEENING: Ireland Grief & Loss
As mentioned, Irish keening women were usually paid for their services and it was, if not a profession, a role reserved for specific community members well suited to it.
But graveside keening was not necessarily limited to the keening women.
Much as with back-and-forth caoineadhs sung during the wake, there are accounts of women forming the inner circle at the time of burial.
Let the singing begin! Again, this back and forth served to ‘clear the air’ and since these women often formed the inner circle in a crowd, they were not always necessarily heard (or didn’t have to be) outside the inner circle.
The important thing was that once the burial was over, that was the end of it. And again, the structure of the singing served to slow everyone down and measure their words.
Most communities were deeply interdependent. There was no walking away and wondering about ‘closure.”
WOMEN & THE FUNERARY RITE
There are so many levels in which the funerary rite was truly the Domain of women. They tended to take care of the dying, the preparation of the deceased, food preparation and ultimately morning the dead.
They had the opportunity, in song, to express their frustrations in a measured way, whether towards in-laws or the departed. (even tho the Irish tend to ‘not speak ill of the dead.”) Again, in a pre-psychology world, how wise!
LAMENTING FOR A YEAR AND A DAY;
There was yet another kind of keening. And it was often done by men as well as women. I know a woman who knew a woman who keened, especially for her children. In societies where high infant mortality rates were the norm, it was essentially an old-world approach to child loss.
Women (and men) were encouraged to stop keening after a year. These keens could take any form but based on Kitty Gallaghers keen (recorded when she was well on in years) seems to follow the same high notes rapidly defending to low notes with the terms of endearment… Kitty’s version is the one this Keening song is based on. (Mysts of Time, track 6)
I saw this come up in many other cultures also, the idea that it was necessary to mourn as they traversed one full cycle of the seasons and to face each milestone of the year addressing their grief. But once the year was up, people were encouraged to stop keening and make a full return to community life.
LAMENTING FOR A YEAR AND A DAY; THE SECOND YEAR IS TOUGHER?
The idea of lamenting for a year and a day was one that kept coming up across cultures. The idea of a definitive return to community life after that time was also consistent.
It’s little wonder older heads often regard the second year of a loss as being more difficult than the first.
THE DYING OUT OF THE KEENING TRADITION
I don’t mean to exclude the Catholic funerary rite or the Christian aspect of death and dying. Any Christian seminary will yield libraries full of grief literature. Suffice it to say, Ireland was a Catholic nation for hundreds of years and one of its central beliefs that of “Communion of the Saints," taking for granted the idea of an afterlife and meeting loved ones in Paradise.
The church didn’t necessarily encourage keening. And over time, much like places like Greece and western Europe, keening was confined to the most rural areas.
By the 1960’s, cars, newspapers and electricity had been introduced to Ireland, immigration was running high and the old traditions started to be looked down on. Many traditions really died out by this time. Movement of people as a result of mass-transportation shuffled the deck socially. Communities became less insular and could get news by newspaper and not just in the locality.
Electricity created great change also but it was more subtle, people they could light their way, so the mystery of the dark, so to speak was taken away. (More on this in the CHILDHOOD section)