What Adele teaches us about grief


MIND MOVES: “The scars of your love remind me of us, They keep me thinking that we almost had it all. The scars of your love, they leave me breathless, I can’t help feeling we could have had it all.”

THE FIRST words spoken to me today were those of a girl in a coffee kiosk in Heuston station. But the first words that really landed were these lyrics of Adele.

After I had settled on the train, I put my headphones on to listen to some music and block out those announcements that keep reminding you never to occupy prebooked seats.

Adele’s lyrics took my mind to a different place. When I was in the US recently, every supermarket and coffee shop I walked into seemed to be playing a track from one of her two mega-hit albums.

Her songs are born of break-ups and heartaches. God forbid that she meets Mr Right and settles down. This young woman is an alchemist. In her own words, she “turned her sorrow into precious gold”.

I suspect we have all been with someone, even briefly, with whom we felt a very deep bond – only to have it end in tears. Friends may have told us it was for the best, that we would get over it, that time would heal. But what they couldn’t appreciate was the depth of our loss. Because it wasn’t only the loss of the intimacy shared, but the loss of a possible future together.

There may have been a moment in our grieving when the weight of sorrow lightened and we felt our anger rise. A moment when we decided, like Adele, that no one, especially someone who had shattered our dreams, had the right to make us feel that way:

“Think of me in the depths of your despair/ Make your home down there ’cos mine sure won’t be shared.”

Freud said that anger is a very normal, important part of grief. I remember a woman in ICU shaking the body of her dead husband furiously, moments after he passed away, pleading with him not to leave her. And I think of a broken-hearted widow who visited the grave of her husband – a man who had taken his own life – and shocked everyone by kicking his headstone and raging at him for leaving her with a young family.

These images of grief may seem more wretched than anything Adele describes. But this singer’s loss must have been very real for her. There is no objective metric for grief. The intensity of our pain is dependent on what our loss means to us, not what others may judge the gravity of our loss to be.

This is probably why teenagers feel frustrated when we discount the intensity of their heartache and reassure them with our worldly wisdom that they will soon get over him or her. However true that may be, our words can sound condescending to them and seem to discount their capacity to feel things very deeply.

I first heard Adele’s song at the funeral of a young boy who died by suicide earlier this year. Songs are like that. They can become woven around memories of events that made a strong emotional impact on us. The depth of grief I witnessed among his friends was heartbreaking. One of them who spoke during the funeral could barely hold himself together. The life he had known was shattered; the future he might have had with his friend had been stolen from him. Grief had wounded him in a way he had possibly never known until that moment.

There may be some wounds that never heal. But for the most part, we manage to come to terms with loss and grief. Healing seems to depend on giving our sorrow words. As Shakespeare said: “The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.”

Some people grieve by telling the story of their loss over and over. Some people write about it. Every once in a while, someone with a creative gift expresses their grief in a way that touches people across continents and time.

Grief reminds us of an inconvenient truth: that we live in the shadow of loss. Words and songs that express grief can touch the scars of love imprinted on our souls.