On Grief and Music: How Sufjan Stevens Made Space for Mourning

Grandma, aged 19

My grandmother died six days before I emigrated to America. It was the last day of August, and for the first time in her 9 months of aggressive liver cancer, she had requested morphine. The nurses had told us, softly, that often, this accelerated a process, and eased a slipping away. We nodded, subdued, but relieved that she would not be in pain. Throughout the day she received visitors and laughed, and teased my eldest sister about the flower show, and told us she had her wings ready for heaven. As dusk fell, we took turns in tending to her as she drifted in and out of both consciousness and pain. By bedtime, my sister suggested that she and I do the nightshift, alternating two hours at a time. She took the first, and around 2am, she woke me and I took over.

The previous night, my aunt, sister and I had drunk too much and were being silly. It was such a release to laugh at a time when death touched everything. My aunt led the way out into the garden at midnight, bottle of wine in hand, and the three of us jumped on the trampoline in the dark, howling at the moon with laughter. It felt as though we’d stretched time, a cross-generational coven united by love and acceptance. If she had been strong enough, Grandma would have been one of the first to jump.

The bedroom she was living in had previously been a dental surgery, and still held a faint medicinal smell. I sat with her, holding her hand and listening to her breath rattle in her ribcage. She looked as though she was made of paper and twigs, not Grandma. I talked, telling her that she could go if she was ready, and that everyone was there and we all loved her. At some point I drifted off and fell into a fitful and guilty sleep, with jagged dreams of glistening teeth and dancing shadows.

Her cries woke me. I held her hand, close, brushed her brow and kissed her as I dropped a thimble of morphine into her mouth. Prayers rolled from my tongue faster than I could question their return to my mouth. My aunt came downstairs and said goodbye, then returned to bed. I sat with Grandma. Her skin had grown cold and her breath rattled as it slowed. In the half light of dawn, I couldn’t see her chest rise and fall, and if I did, it was only because I willed it so. I looked to her face and saw nothing familiar, she had gone. I woke the house, and called my mother to tell her that her mother was dead.

Then came the adults, and doctors and undertakers and dark humour and a subtle relief that I had done my part. A rare moment occurred after her body had been removed when everyone left the house and I was completely alone. I realised it was the first time I had ever, in all my life, been in her home without her there. Unnerved, I left. Walked down the narrow lane, crossed the bridge over the swollen falls of the full river, and found myself at the church where my sister had married and where my grandfather was buried, and I wept. In the long grass beside the stepping stones crossing the river, the laughter of families bubbled into the last day of summer.

Grief is an unravelling. A loose thread tugged, pulling a known and loved pattern into jumbled threads. When Sufjan Stevens’ album Carrie and Lowell was released in February 2015, it drew me back into my grief, forcing me to shine a light on something dim and deliberately unexplored. My life had been thrown into such newness in the autumn of 2014, when I moved to the US, that I had barely stopped to come up for air, and when I did, it scared me how little breath I had. There is a rawness and intimacy to the album that feels a gift, to be invited into the head and heart of someone else’s grief. It is such an extraordinary emotion, to be completely shared and something we will all experience, and yet uniquely isolating. In March of 2015, I saw Sufjan’s show at the Fox Theatre in Oakland and time expanded again. My mind flooded with images of my grandmother at the end and I felt simultaneously held by music and torn apart by it.

Just before the show, my old friend and ex, James, had messaged me, excited by the album. We spoke of how we were both trapped in fear of failure, that the only time we felt free was when we were creating. We spoke of how Sufjan’s way to understand the world was to create through everything. Through grief, isolation, joy, and crucially, fear. We agreed to quiet our internal dissent. He bought me tickets to see Sufjan in the UK, setting a definite date for me to plan my first return home.

We first met when we were 17. I was in a red beret, all black phase and he was the most attractive person I had ever met. It was almost unreasonable. He told me he saw me every day, waiting for the X39 bus. From anyone else it would have been creepy, but from him, I felt seen. I was quite isolated from my school friends, often. There was a clique of girls, bound to rituals I didn’t care for or understand, bound to behaviours, bound to a construct of femininity that I struggled with. Suddenly, I had a friend who enjoyed reading. A friend who wrote. A friend who enjoyed studying. A friend who illuminated everything.

I remember going to see Adaptation with him at the George St Odeon in Oxford, every fibre of my being electrified by finally being with someone who understood me. I don’t think I was conscious of how essential that was, not for years. James never judged me. Well, apart from the brief 6 week window when I had white girl dreads, and I definitely deserved that judgment. His silliness was unparalleled. We would sit in cafes, for hours and hours, inventing stories together and speaking in riddles. He sent me glorious, abstract text messages. This was a time when you could only store ten messages on a phone, and I still have the notebooks I filled with his words, when the memory was full.

I was deeply, deeply in love with him, though nothing ever happened. The summer of our A-Levels was an intense time, we cast off the cloak of childhood and ran, drunk, into one of the hottest summers on record. We lost touch, met other people, drifted apart. The last time I saw him in my teens was outside Sainsburys on Magdalen St. He told me he was going to Guildford, I said I was going to Bristol, and we parted ways.

I moved to London in October 2010. Sufjan had just released The Age of Adz and All Delighted People, in quick succession. It was a musical deus ex machina for me, guiding me through the first difficult months of living in London, and starting my MA. I vividly recall running around Soho whilst listening to Too Much, desperate to find a printer to run off some contracts for the South Asian Literature Festival which I was volunteering at. It’s a fraught album and it both served to antagonise and soothe me, all at once. The discordance of the music and the apocalyptic urgency of the lyrics mirrored my uncertainty about moving, about the life I was trying to create in London. In May 0f 2011, I was fortunate enough to see Sufjan Stevens for the first time. It remains one of the most extraordinary musical experiences I have ever known. I went alone, knowing that I couldn’t temper my adoration, couldn’t hold conversation, I could only give him my whole attention. When he played Impossible Soul, I entered a full synaesthetic vision. I travelled through a tunnel of purple sound that tore off in my hands like silver birch bark. Discordant notes fell on my skin, warm, like monsoon rain, before exploding into yellow fireworks of sound. It was sublime. It was also Sufjan’s first ever UK show, and seeing this diminutive musical deity perform gave me a clarity and a joy unbound. When I rode my bike home, I felt as though I was gliding, still bathed in light-sound, illuminated.

A few weeks later, I bumped into James. I had seen that he had become Facebook friends with one of my oldest university friends, George. At a birthday celebration, the whole delirious history of my teenaged love/obsession with James tumbled out of me. And suddenly, there he was. A mythical figure made real, and grounding me to my past. We were straight back into the word games, surveying each other on top five fruits, running polls on how trustworthy the moon is.

When we kissed for the first time, my seventeen year old self pretty much died with joy. So did my present-self. There was an ease and a homecoming with James that astonished me. Of course, we didn’t work very well together. Both invested in solitary and confidence battering work, we fell into existential slumps, and frequently at the same time. He felt unreachable, our interactions lacked a depth that we both felt but couldn’t pinpoint. After he spent hours talking to me about operating systems when I had the flu, I gave up, convinced that I had strong armed my past into my present and failed to consider the consequences. I went off on holiday to Greece and I didn’t see him again.

I was angry, for a time. With him, for not measuring up to my unreasonable standards, but more with myself for pitting him against them. Building someone into such a state of adoration sets them up for a fall. He could never align with what I imagined he could be, we were running in parallels.

Oxford is really only a city because it’s got lots of cathedrals — it’s quite a small town. One of the reasons I longed to get out of the city for university was to avoid bumping into people I hadn’t called, or was actively hiding from. It’s fitting, then, that when visiting Oxford in early 2013, I bumped into James in the Cape of Good Hope on the Plane. It was genuinely a delight to see him. It was the same old story, the past fell away and we stood together in a new time. That began the truest part of our friendship and relationship. We fell into something far deeper and honest than the past had ever created space for. For the second time, the romance failed, but I knew I had a soulmate of sorts in him. At my leaving party, he was the first person to arrive and the last person to say goodnight.

I was painting at work in San Francisco when I received a message to say that James had died. I couldn’t quite take the information in. My legs collapsed under me, and I was immediately sick. I carried on painting, not quite sure what to do with myself. Numb with shock, I went home and cried myself to sleep.

The following day, I began cleaning, obsessively. My husband urged me not to, but it wasn’t something I could stop, and it felt helpful, returning familiarity to chaos. I closed the kitchen door to get to work and instinctively put on some music. Without thinking, it was Carrie and Lowell. The poignancy of forgetting, the shock of a new parallel, I crumpled again, pressing my face and palms against the dirty floor. Every road leads to an end.

James in Wales | 2013

The funeral was extraordinary, because James was. A bus had been hired from London, and it felt like a school trip, everyone chatting and making jokes. Our collective love for the one person who wasn’t there pulled our threads tight, and we were bound. I had been so anxious to go alone, having never met his friends, met his sister only once. Those nerves were allayed as I sat in the crowded chapel of the crematorium, sleeves stuffed with tissues, hands held by new friends. As his coffin was carried in, Sufjan’s song Casimir Pulaski Day played and I was so, so glad I wasn’t alone.

Time hasn’t soothed the brutality of his absence, nor has it softened my grief. I miss James, horribly. When I want to be near him, I listen to Sufjan. I write, and think about the art he should have been making, and the art I make in his absence. I think of my grandmother, and how her independence inspired me to move half way across the world, how her voice is always with me in the stories she told. Listening to Carrie & Lowell creates a 49 minute space where I can attend to grief, feel as though James and my grandmother are beside me, and they, through the music, give me strength. I want to be so much for them, and I feel capable with Sufjan’s music holding me, Erebus on my back, my lucky charm.