Earl Scruggs, ‘Talk of the Nation,’ and Grief

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?

Grief.

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?

Related articles:
A Season of Grieving and Transformation
The Pendulum of Grieving
Creating Rituals to Move Through Grief

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Tammy Blackard Cook, LCSW, therapist in Raleigh, North Carolina

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Joel

    Joel

    March 30th, 2012 at 3:05 PM

    am i the only person who had never heard of earl scruggs?!

  • Hollie

    Hollie

    March 31st, 2012 at 7:28 AM

    What a nice story. It’s wonderful how something like this can bring you such memories of someone in your own family that you may miss, but also bring you back together with that connection that the two of you were able to share in life.

  • Jeff

    Jeff

    April 1st, 2012 at 4:48 AM

    This is quite a loss not only for the bluegrass music family, but for the music community in general. His creativity and unique brand that was his own is rarely found today, and that inspiration will sorely be missed.

  • laura

    laura

    April 2nd, 2012 at 4:24 AM

    It is funny how sometimes and in ways that you never think are going to be connected things pop up and bring back a flood of memories.

    Grief is kind of weird like that, sneaking up on you when you least expect it. But hopefully when this happens you can take a moment to remember the good times and not the sad and rejoice in the memories that you have of this person.

  • Cat

    Cat

    April 2nd, 2012 at 3:20 PM

    I have struggled with my own grief in the past year stemming from the loss of my father. I am so glad that you have something that ties you to yours, because I quite literally feel like I had nothing that ties me to mine. We really had nothing in common, and did little together except at normal faily gatherings. But I have come to regret that so much now that he is gone, and I want that time together back so badly. I guess you don’t realize all that you are missing until you don’t have the chance to ever get it back again.

  • Tammy Blackard Cook

    Tammy Blackard Cook

    April 2nd, 2012 at 6:57 PM

    Thanks for all the wonderful comments. Joel, I’m sure you’re not alone! Carl, my heart goes out to you. I realize I was lucky to have that relationship with my father, and, as odd it sounds, cancer does at least give you a chance to appreciate the time you have left. I always believe there are lessons in every thing in life, especially the hard things. What will yours be going forward?

  • Gary HY

    Gary HY

    April 3rd, 2012 at 7:24 AM

    I miss my mom so much.my ritual often includes feeding fish in the aquarium because that is what she always did and I remember seeing her do that everyday.She was on her wheelchair for quite a few years before she passed away and always cared for the fish.I do that now and it gives me immense satisfaction in doing so.

  • Tammy Blackard Cook

    Tammy Blackard Cook

    April 6th, 2012 at 6:32 AM

    Love that ritual, Gary. I’d love to hear more from folks!

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