Music and Grief

August 28, 2017

Music has always been a big part of my life. I sang in choirs for the majority of my school and university years, and music that I listened to at specific points in my life always manages to send me back in time. When I was pregnant with my daughter, Viktoría, I listened almost exclusively to classical music. Not because I thought it would make her smarter, but because I like classical music and wanted her to like it, too, and be soothed by it after she was born.

After Viktoría died, I stopped listening to music. The music that I had been listening to while pregnant made me cry too easily, so I avoided it.

Instead of listening to Classical FM while cooking, I listened to the news. Instead of listening to Ed Sheeran on the commute to work, I listened to podcasts.

As the months have passed, I have slowly started to listen to music again. When the radio plays songs I like, I turn up the volume. Sometimes I even sing along. Once or twice I have danced to the Spice Girls while making dinner. These moments are brief, but 20 months after Viktoría’s death, they are happening more often.

It was only recently that I listened to classical music again for the first time. I was immediately transported back to my pregnancy, sitting in my lazy-boy chair at the end of a long day of work with my feet in the air and the music turned up, to make sure Viktoría heard, too. This is a happy memory, but it also brought tears to my eyes. Luckily I was in a place where I felt safe enough to cry, so I did. I have found that when the tears come, it is best to let them out. It makes me feel better, acknowledging my sadness that way.

Viktoría lived for twenty-two days in the NICU. She was a preemie, stuck in an isolette on a ventilator her entire life.

Her father and I did not get many opportunities to hold her, but we got to change her diaper and hold her hand through the isolette window. We also sang to her. The nursery rhymes we sang now invariably remind us of Viktoría and these happy moments with her. We decided to have those same nursery rhymes sung at her funeral, though we were not able to sing much ourselves for the tears. I was unable to sing those nursery rhymes without crying for a long time, but now I can usually get through at least one verse without a lump in my throat. I still cannot sing the hymns, however, which we sang at Viktoría’s Christening in the NICU.

The songs her father chose to sing for her are not regular nursery rhymes. He is a classical singer, a baritone, and liked to sing her some of his repertoire. Loch Lomond and Schubert’s Ständchen are the songs he most often sang, or hummed, through the isolette windows, or while doing kangaroo care with Viktoría. We were lucky enough to have an organist and cellist perform these songs so beautifully at the beginning and end of the funeral, though I am afraid we made a lot of people feel awkward when we went back into the chapel to listen to the rest of Ständchen after carrying the casket to the hearse waiting outside. We did not care; other people’s awkwardness is something you quickly get used to when you have lost a child.

Ständchen has been a special song for me for years, as it is the song Viktoría’s father sang to me at our wedding reception. It is a beautiful love song, or serenade, but it is also strangely fitting sung to a child that has passed away.

I have found that as a bereaved mother I can relate to most love songs in a different way than they were intended. Songs about lost love, especially, often make me cry. Many lyrics about romantic love can easily be interpreted as a parent longing for his or her dead child.

Loch Lomond is not a song that is frequently heard where we live, on the radio or otherwise. Last January we went to Burns Supper, an annual dinner to celebrate the Scottish poet Robert Burns, held by the Icelandic Edinburgh Society. I knew Loch Lomond would be sung there, and I was nervous beforehand about how I would react. I ended up crying, but I felt it was a marker of how far I have come in my grief journey that I wanted, and was able to sing along anyway.

Guest story by Katrín Vilborgar. Gunnarsdóttir


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