Singing Over Bones—A Creative Approach to Grieving
Your absence has gone through me/like thread through a needle/everything I do is stitched with its colors. (W.S. Merwin)
One of my younger brothers died in an avalanche while extreme skiing when he was 21 years old. I can vividly imagine his body lying at the bottom of a 750 cliff, his bones completely shattered. Even though it was many years ago, sometimes it hurts as if it just happened yesterday. Ever the “wild child,” Chad used to break his bones quite often and each time the doctors would remark on how strong he was and how quickly he would heal. But I knew that this time, it didn’t matter how strong he was; there would be no healing– for him or our family. It seemed our identities had shattered with his body on those rocks.
I first looked to my parents for ways through. My father tried to live the shocking adage “three out of three people die, so we should shut up and deal.” My mother, on the other hand, cried and cried. She is still crying. Fumbling in the dark, I found myself searching. Messages all around me said, “get over it,” and “move on.” Others said, “Time will heal,” and “he is with God now.” Some even said, “Well at least he died doing something he loved.” It was well intentioned, but missed the point completely. Because as grieving people, we STILL LOVE. I wasn’t ready to stop loving.
I then came across a Japanese proverb which said, “My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.” It introduced me to the idea that when we have to say good-bye to our material relationship, we are also being offered an opportunity to say hello to our lost loved ones in our imaginations. Even though they are physically gone, they are psychologically more present. I discovered that we can use this relationship with the deceased create the rituals that provide the lifeline through which we can STILL LOVE.
Over the years, this message has reached me from many sources, most impactfully, through old stories. Many folktales show us pathways through grieving but Nyctea of the Pacific Northwest is a particularly meaningful one:
Few people have seen her, but those who have say she is as wide as she is tall with bare feet that curl like roots going into the ground and hands more like talons than fingers. She has long, greasy-gray matted hair that is tied up in vulture feathers and mossy breath. Her eyes are large and fixed in their sockets and the noises that she makes are more bird than human- tchkt, tchkt, caw, tchkt, tchkt, caw. And she is followed by birds who hope she will know them. They call her Nyctea, which means, of the night, and she lives in the hollowed-out stumps of redwood trees that have been hit by lightning. It is there that she collects the treasures of the forest—snail shells, and mushroom caps, lichen, and bits of fox fur. But the most coveted treasures of all are owl parts which are the bones, translucent/hollow, light as a grain of rice, but strong as the wind, the talons, the feathers. And when she has gathered all the bones of a particular owl and puts them in the order an owl’s bones should be, she harvests earth from the seasonal creeks and she very carefully and lovingly forms the shape of the creature, thinking as she does this of the nature of that particular bird. And when the clay dries, and she needs to mold it she uses the salt water truth of her tears to ply it, leaving sockets for wide eyes and putting the claws back in place. And while she is doing this she sings softly, as a grandmother would to a child, and through the breath going in and out, in and out, which creates the rhythm of her song, she warms the clay which slowly gives way to flesh, and feather, and heartbeat. And when her song is finished the owl opens its yellow/green eyes, spreads its wings and flies, equipped now to cross the “owl’s bridge” to the next realm, leaving a downy feather or two and the quivering memory of its beauty in the dank, wet air.
(Bateman, Chiron, 2016, p. 15-16)
In grief, we are all Nyctea—metaphorically gathering bones and eventually (hopefully) singing over them. We return to the instinctual and use the salt water truth of our tears to form the shape of our loved one out of pure memories. We collect stories, pictures, and belongings. With Chad, every word he’d written seemed important and we wanted to dance to his music, and smell his clothing. The small pin that said “just visiting this planet” seemed a numinous premonition. We crave this connection. We need to gather and reconstruct, because we are authoring our loved one’s story and our own in relation to them. And when undertaken with great love, we create the container of redwood cave (christened by lightning) that will hold our song.
Over the years, I became a clinical psychologist and moved into the role of teaching death and dying and facilitating grief workshops. I have had the profound pleasure of witnessing people singing over bones in ways that honor the uniqueness of their relationships.
Cary was a musician and a construction worker. When his son was in a quad accident on Sand Mountain, he and his wife found themselves sitting in a hospital room staring at a lifeless body. A myriad of beeping machines kept their son alive despite the pronounced lack of brain waves. Barely able to process this abrupt change in their reality, the organ donation representative came to speak with them about giving the gift of life to help others. Cary and his wife thought it was a good thing to do, but became very emotional when considering the donation of his heart. The heartbeat on the sonogram sixteen years earlier had been Cary’s first introduction to his son and his new role as a father. He couldn’t “let it go.” Cary had an idea. He asked the nurses to help him hook up a recording device to a stethoscope. He then used his son’s heartbeat as the base, and created musical arrangements. He listens to the songs often, and feels the essence of his son is always with him.
Another woman lost her husband after 45 years. That winter on her walks, she kept noticing single gloves, and there was something about those gloves that resonated very deeply with her because they were useless and discarded without their mate. She began collecting them, taking them home and stuffing them in the dresser. And when the dresser was overflowing, she got out her husband’s old ladder, and put it up against the tree in their backyard and hung each glove by fishing line. She said when the wind blows, it is like they are waving good-bye and waving hello.
How can you sing over the bones of your lost loved one? You can begin by gathering— what did they believe? What brought them joy? What did it feel like to be with them? —and you can lovingly recreate the image of the deceased. You can honor the salt water truth of your tears, and sit quietly and prayerfully beside the memory of your loved one. And you can let them lead the way. Maybe they appear as feathers on the path, or the color red in a sunset. Maybe they are the smell of leaves after the rain. Perhaps they are asking you to walk dogs at the humane society, or plant lilacs. Let the beauty they loved be what you do. And you will find that where you felt most alone, you will be in relationship with them still. I know I cannot heal Chad’s bones at the bottom of that cliff in the material, but I can gather them in my imagination and sing over them. It is something we all can do in our grief. May your song be colorful. And may you keep loving.