Two years ago, I had my first experience with death. I was familiar with the concept– I heard of deaths in far away wars and the passing of an old neighbor and distant acquaintance, but I had never experienced it personally. Even with my lack of proximity to death, I worried about it. Sometimes a parent was late picking me up, a friend wasn’t feeling well, or I heard a plane flying close overhead I fought off slight panic and tried not to imagine the worst. This worrying was sparked on a Thursday in January when my guitar teacher did not show up to our twice-a-month guitar lesson.
I waited, first with aggravation and impatience. I had been really enjoying my lessons and was excited to show my teacher the fingerpicking I’d practiced on a song she taught me. Soon, I was imagining reasons she might be delayed or not coming. Maybe she had forgotten. Maybe she had met a famous musician who was promoting her and she was on her way to musical and financial fame and success. Maybe her car had broken down or she had gotten lost on the way to my house.
Then I began imagining worst case scenarios. I worried that something bad had happened to her–maybe she had gotten in a car accident or she was seriously ill. Soon I felt guilty that I’d been annoyed with her for not showing up when it might not be her fault. Now, I can’t remember if I said anything to anyone about it. I might have shot a tentative “I hope she’s okay,” at my mom, probably receiving a matter-of-fact assurance that she must have just forgotten to come.
It was days later when I heard that my thirty year old teacher had passed away suddenly. A week later I found out through a mutual friend that she had committed suicide. I don’t remember my initial reactions to either of these things. I don’t know how long it took me to start crying, but I remember wondering after a few days why I was still so upset. At a certain point, I think the people around me didn’t know how to help me cope anymore. I had my time to feel sorry and I thought anyone else would have been over it by now.
I didn’t know why I couldn’t stop mourning the death of an individual I’d only seen every other week for three months, but my indirect relationship to her didn’t make my shock and horror any less immediate. In the most literal, physical sense, there was no difference to me between her dying and her quitting teaching or leaving the state, but I was thinking about the loss of her not from my point of view but from the world’s. I could deal with her being out of my life, but what was harder to come to terms with was that she was in the middle of hers. I found out she was working on an album and planning another tour. I imagined her family and boyfriend and how she’d never be a mom. What kept hitting me over and over was the waste of her life’s potential, the awfulness of the cold ending of everything she was. I thought about how when she died, any relationships people had with her were closed. If anything was left unfinished or unanswered, the people left held that for their whole lives. Whatever anyone had with her, memories or conversations, were now only theirs. There’s no way to deny or combat that reality, it’s final and painful forever.
I began to give my teacher more attention than I had when she was alive. I started by googling her name and found her website. I started searching YouTube for her performances. I went onto iTunes and listened to every song she wrote or played that I could find. I bought one of her albums and was soon sent a CD of another by a friend of hers I’d met. When she was alive, I hadn’t taken the time to listen to her music. It’s hard for me to admit it, but it took her death for me to begin to take an interest in her life outside of our lessons. I wanted to understand how someone I had seen as so relaxed and happy could have reached the point of committing suicide.
The words of her songs were so much more meaningful to me than the obituaries I’d blundered through with teary distorted vision. I started to hear references to her sadness that I had never seen when I knew her. She sang about her demons, her disbelief when things were finally feeling good and the ups and downs she went through. I also was able to hear the happiness and light smiles I’d seen in person when she was alive. She sang about the love she experienced and her happiness when her song was put on TV.
Mama and Papa, don’t you worry ‘bout me,
I know it’s been several days since you heard from me,
But it’s all making much more sense to me
Since they put my song on the TV screen
Hearing those words, I hated the irony of how I’d heard that people hadn’t heard from my teacher when they expected. They came to check on her in her house the next day, worried, and found her. It was so personal to be inside her thoughts through her music, and it helped me to reconcile what I knew about her with what I was just beginning to uncover. Listening to and learning her songs felt like a real way to honor her. I felt guilty for taking on so much sadness when it wasn’t my tragedy to take on, but by hearing and learning her music I was let into her life a little bit and and saw her accomplishment and experiences. Every word that she had written, recorded, sang so many times, was her mark, output, choice. That gave me some closure.
My process of rationalizing and coming to terms with loss wasn’t completed though, I needed to create my own words to articulate what I had experienced. I took my processing of my teacher’s death, her music, and my feelings and encapsulated them in a song.
I don’t understand, it’s just slipping through my hands,
This passing and going into uncharted lands
However we try it just keeps on going,
We’re all just here in this ebbing and flowing
Now I’m searching for peace in bowed notes and strums,
I’m trying to match my heartbeat to the racing drums
The endings are too sharp and none of it’s right,
But eventually we’ll all leave this world,
Fade into light
I wrote more and was able to express my anger at myself and people around me for not caring about my teacher more when she was alive. I wrote about my confusion at why I was taking on someone else’s loss, as well as the necessary acceptance of her death that I realized I would eventually reach. I wrote the words of my song like my teacher wrote her songs; they were true and important, and I imagine, necessary for both of us. Something about laying it all out– putting feelings and thoughts all together, playing my guitar, and singing words that were so genuine and real to me, was freeing.
I was invited by a friend of my teacher to play my song at her memorial concert. It was a great performance. A friend of my teacher’s from college left everyone there laughing at his hilarious song lyrics. My teacher’s old best friend played songs and told stories that left us crying because they expressed the loss everyone there was feeling. Some of my teacher’s friends played her songs, and I sang along with them in my head. When I played my song, I was nervous and doubtful of my belonging there. Once I was onstage, though, I began speaking and the story of my experience just came out. I played my song with more emotion than I’d played anything else with before because it was so real. People said the kindest things about my song too. They made me feel like even though I didn’t know my teacher well, I was experiencing the same loss of her, as a person, and I belonged there. Someone asked if they could share my song with my teacher’s family, and I agreed. Some of my family came to the concert too, and even though they didn't quite understand the experience I’d gone through or the confidence I had to build up to perform my song, it was nice to have their support.
Two years later, death has not stopped being hard for me to accept. I still am hit by how wrong it seems, especially for people I imagine are too young or too in love with life to die or to want to die. But the death of my teacher is distant and I don’t think about it so much anymore. I imagine that her family and friends don’t have the luxury of moving on from her death in this way, but I’ve gotten the most closure I will ever get. I feel like I’ve lived my part in this, and moving on is no longer ignoring what’s important but letting something I’ve experienced pass.
The words of my teacher’s songs and the words I created in response to her death and my feelings about it, are meaningful to me. They represent something more important than poetry or lyrics. They served me in the best way possible, and helped me get through something I didn’t know how else to face.