Earl Scruggs died this week. For those of you not familiar with bluegrass music, he was one of the godfathers of bluegrass, an amazingly talented banjo player and innovator. Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of being interviewed on NPR’s national talk show, “Talk of the Nation.” Surely, you’re wondering: What do these things have in common?
Somehow, “Talk of the Nation” read my very first blog post on GoodTherapy.org about my yearlong struggle with grief: I lost my father to lung cancer in early 2011. The producers liked that I was a practicing clinician who also had experienced and written about her own grief. They were doing a story about the possibility that the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible for mental health professionals, might not include the “bereavement exclusion” in determining whether someone can be diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD). Basically, by excluding bereavement, someone who is in the throws of their own grief could be diagnosed, dare I say labeled, with MDD. I don’t think this is good idea, but that’s another blog post.
Back to Earl Scruggs: my father loved bluegrass music. When I was young, he would subject us to hours of bluegrass music on long car rides to the beach. As children, bluegrass sounded old fashioned, out of touch, a relic of the past. We wanted nothing to do with it. In fact, it embarrassed us.
After I graduated from college and moved to Chicago to check out big city life, I fell in love with bluegrass myself. And I fell in love with it before the movie O Brother Where Art Thou brought bluegrass to the masses. Homesickness and ties to my roots drew me to the music, but the soulful lyrics and melodies drew me in. It always reminded me of home and of Daddy.
“Talk of the Nation” provided me with a forum to talk about grief from the perspective of a clinician and from the perspective of one grieving. I hadn’t expected the moderator’s offers of condolences to bring tears to my eyes, to cause that familiar catch in my throat and tightness in my chest. (If you listen to the interview here, you can hear me trying to rein it in at one point.)
But that’s how grief is: sometimes it sneaks up on you even when you’re not in the early throws of it—when it’s omnipresent. It happened during the interview, but in some ways, that’s good. That’s why they asked me, I think: Because I know grief, my own grief.
And today it snuck up on me again because Earl Scruggs died. When Daddy died, I helped clean out all his tractors and trucks, including his collection of bluegrass CDs: Bill Monroe, The Stanley Brothers, Earl Scruggs & Lester Flatt, Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Ricky Skaggs. I’m the only one in the family, it seems, that inherited his love of bluegrass music. It was our connection.
When I moved back from Chicago, he often invited me along when he went with his farmer friends to various little bluegrass and mountain music festivals in the hills of Virginia and North Carolina. Those were happy memories, happy times, coming on the heels of his remission from the first go-round of cancer. We cherished the time we had.
And now I use the bluegrass music as a way to grieve when I realize I haven’t allowed myself time: Time to grieve. Just like the interview on “Talk of the Nation,” there are times when my grief wells up and takes me a little by surprise. If I pay attention, I realize that I haven’t been allowing myself any time or any rituals for grieving. I need to allow myself that time and those rituals or grief sneaks up on me, reminding me to pay attention, reminding me to remember what I’ve lost so I can cherish what I have left.
One of my rituals for grieving the loss of my father is to take a walk in nature, put on the bluegrass playlist I made for his funeral, and just see what comes up. The songs are ones he loved, about loss, letting go and holding dear. Sometimes I cry, sometimes I just remember.
So, to sum up: “Talk of the Nation” and Earl Scruggs reminded me I hadn’t taken any time out to grieve lately. I pulled out my bluegrass and listened and remembered and grieved. It helps.
What are your rituals?
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