Songs for Death: Grieving with Joy Harjo’s “Singing Everything” | An Autocritographical Essay by Jessica Langlois

“Those are the heaviest songs and they / Have to be pried from the earth with shovels of grief.”

I know those songs.

I know a life of pain, and grief, and suffering. I know what it’s like to sing a song for death when the rest of the world sings songs of falling-in-love.

I was seventeen years old when my older brother, Corey, was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare pediatric cancer found in less than 1% of cancer patients. I was eighteen when he died.

For months, the riptide of grief flipped me upside down as people complained of emotional paper cuts when my arms had been amputated. I lived a separate reality from those around me.

I spent hours searching my phone for pictures of Corey. I read and re-read the text messages he had sent me, including the last text he ever sent me: “Good times come and go.”

I listened to his favorite songs on repeat, watched the movies he loved, and read a book series from our childhood. I did everything I could to be close to him, but my methods of grieving weren’t always healthy.

One week, I bought a tub of Tollhouse cookie dough and locked myself in my bedroom. Tissues littered the floor, photos clung to the walls, and tears stained my pillow. I slept on the floor, only leaving to use the bathroom. I turned my phone to airplane mode and disappeared for almost ten days.

Sometimes I went to class; sometimes I didn’t. My professors understood, but I still felt like a failure. Two weeks after my brother’s funeral I returned to class for the first time. A girl in the class, who had signed two of the sympathy cards I received, commented, “Oh, look who decided to show up to class and stop slacking off for once.” She didn’t hear my song. I didn’t return for another three class periods.

Harjo’s poem, “Singing Everything,” challenged my methods of grieving. The poem forced me to consider how I continue to grieve now, two years later. Her words made me realize that instead of fearing silence, I should befriend it. Silent Songs are powerful; they’re a necessary part of the grieving process and I’ve been ignoring them, drowning them out with smiles and homework and future plans, disregarding their importance along with their healing power.

I should listen.

I’ve adapted healthier methods of grieving, such as journaling and talking to a counselor. I’ve begun taking antidepressants and I’ve surrounded myself with an amazing support group who reminds me to stay present. I no longer let myself fade into the noise, but there’s always room for growth.

Harjo observes that there are songs for everything. She acknowledges that there is no single song, but separate songs for each person. For death, and birth, and sunrise, and war. Each song holds a story. Each story is different. I’m not the only person to have ever lost someone. But no one lived my story. Not my mom, or my sister, or my brother’s wife. Only I know my song for death.

I want to hear the songs that others hide, whether for death or birth or war. But the world we live in tells us to hide our songs. Society tells us not to sing songs of runny mascara, of bags under eyes that haven’t seen a good night’s rest in years. No, not in this world. We must only sing popular songs that everyone around us sings.

It’s sad to think that “all that we hear are falling-in-love songs and falling apart after falling-in-love songs,” but the key word in this line is the word hear. Now all that we hear. This phrase does not say that songs don’t exist, only that we don’t hear them.

Harjo says “you must be friends with silence to hear.” Befriending silence goes deeper than not talking. Harjo personifies silence, making the distinction of a lack of interacting with people and actively interacting with silence. Perhaps I should introduce Silence to some of my friends. Maybe if they meet Silence, they’ll like him and spend time with him. Maybe he’ll help them hear, though hearing doesn’t always lead to understanding.

I learned after my brother’s death that even if people slow down and listen to your song, they might not understand it. They may try to analyze the notes and admire the melody, but to them, it’ll sound like every other song. They likely won’t pause for more than a second to listen.

It wasn’t until I met someone with their own song of death that I felt understood.

Harjo understands.

She groups all the other songs together, from planting to war, separating them only with line breaks and commas, but she gives songs for death their own sentence. Her decision to give death its own category demonstrates her understanding of its weight.

My song of death is burdensome, reminding me that a piece of me is missing.

Harjo acknowledges that the songs for death need to be “pried from the earth with shovels of grief.” They can’t stay buried underground with the corpses. Our grief influences who we are, and we shouldn’t try to hide the sad parts of our lives. We should embrace them. We should tell our stories; we should sing our songs.

Our grief should not be a barrier we try to overcome, but a tool which empowers us to grow. You must first dig a hole in the garden of suffering before the song for death can bloom.

Once, there were songs for death, and I intend to sing mine.

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