Previously I have written about the power of storytelling to manage grief. I drew on the writing of Dr. Annie Brewster and Nick Cave. Annie published her groundbreaking book, The Healing Power of Storytelling, to share her own story and that of others who have experienced loss, trauma or serious chronic illness.
In his book, Faith, Hope & Carnage, Nick demonstrates how his storytelling through his writing, documentary and his creative endeavours (songwriting, recording and performing) provided him with growth and transformation and enabled him to manage his grief with the loss of his 15 year old son, Arthur.
Even before his son’s death, Nick felt a strong need for social connection and so he created the website, Red Hand Files, to give his fans an avenue to communicate with him by asking questions of him. The resultant Red Hand Files moved from a superficial exchange re his songs and their origins to a deeply personal storytelling exchange that Nick described as an “exercise in communal vulnerability and transparency”.
Nick maintains that that through the Red Hand Files his past debilitating filters ‘have been dismantled over time” and wonder and awe have been restored in his life. He indicates that the experience of the Red Hand Files, involving mutual storytelling, has enabled him to slowly develop self-awareness and transparency by “prising” him open – moving him to progressively disclose himself and the depth of his feelings. He asserts that the process of such mutual vulnerability caused him to change as a person, songwriter and performer.
Nick’s interviewer for his book, Sean O’Hagan, comments that the letters people wrote to Nick as part of the Red Hand Files were very powerful in transforming people’s lives and served to fulfill their need for connection “by articulating their particular story for somebody else to hear”. The online files enabled people to reach out and find a way to voice their own grief. Tiffany Barton’s story is an illustration of the power of such sharing through storytelling.
Tiffany Barton’s story of loss and grief
Tiffany recently shared her story of loss and grief, and her healing interaction with Nick, in her story, “Into My Arms”, in The Weekend Australian Magazine, June 10-11 (pp.15-19). Tiffany lost her 22 year old, gifted son, Cosmo, through suicide. It is only after his death that she began to realise that Cosmo showed signs of being on the autism spectrum. For example, he had a phenomenal memory, being able to recite the 230 digits of Pi. He was also readily able to memorise Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn when learning music and performing.
Cosmo had a totally absorbing passion for the fortepiano, an instrument like a piano but based on instruments developed before 1930 (and differing from the modern piano in tone, touch and appearance). Cosmo was mesmerized by the fortepiano often talking passionately about its history, mechanics and technique and developing a unique skill in tuning the instrument. His passion led him to study the fortepiano at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) where he hoped to eventually complete a PhD. His last performance on the fortepiano was described by Tiffany as “a stunning final concert at WAAPA”. Cosmo suffered terribly from sclerosis which led him to seek relief from a drug purchased online, that ultimately led to his death.
In her article, Tiffany describes her grief as being “like a mosquito smashed on the window of a ten-tonne truck”. She drew on Nick’s words to describe the “vastness” of grief, reducing us to “trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence”. Tiffany became aware of Nick’s writings on grief through his Red Hand Files and was particularly moved by his “Letter to Cynthia” that he turned into a song. She wrote a poem “young death” about the night Cosmo died which helped her “purge some of the trauma and change” she carried.
Tiffany reached out to Nick by writing a letter to him and including her poem. Nick was incredibly moved by Tiffany’s courage and clarity in articulating her grief and asked her permission to publish her letter and poem in his Faith, Hope & Carnage book (which he duly did). He also asked her to record them for his audiobook.
Nick subsequently contacted Tiffany and spoke in his usual “patient” and “loving” way. Besides checking-in on her welfare, he inquired about her meditation practice. She explained that she uses meditation to communicate with Cosmo. In her discussion with Nick she spoke of Cosmo’s drug use and the impact of intergenerational trauma on her family. Tiffany explained that Nick’s ability to articulate his “grief, loss, love, art and spiritual awakening” in his book soothed her and “offered her respite from her horror”.
Nick found that there was “freedom in grief” and indicated that the words of Kris Kristofferson song, Bobby McGee, resonated with him – “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”. Nick came to reconcile with the reality of the human condition and the “acute jeopardy of life”. He strongly urges us to appreciate all aspects of our life and savour “the time we have together in this world”.
It’s in facing our challenging emotions that we can break free of their hold over us and realise true freedom. Storytelling and sharing with others can open us up to the depths of our feelings and release us from the hold of our own expectations and those of others. As we grow in mindfulness through openness, curiosity and non-judgmental attention, we can deepen our self-awareness and develop the courage to share our story of loss and grief for our own healing and transformation.
By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)
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