Last Sunday in the New York Times, there was an article entitled, “Getting Grief Right” by Patrick O’Malley (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/01/10/getting-grief-right/?_r=0). I posted this essay on Facebook, and it got tons of feedback. This article hit a nerve with a lot of people, and with good reason. In the article, O’Malley goes beyond, and nearly dismantles, the idea of the five stages of grieving, as well as the notion that a day comes when “you’re over it.” Those of us that have endured grief and watched others endure grief know this to be true. It rarely ever “ends.”
Observing this, I thought back to the summer of 2013 when I was pulling out of the Toyota dealership with my new car. The song “Alone Again, Naturally” came on the radio and there was this epiphany I had — one about grief and existential longing and the masks we wear. It hit me so powerfully I have never forgotten the moment, nor have I ever been able to dismiss the song as sappy dribble ever again.
In fact, this song has the power to make me cry now every time I hear it.
Indulge me as I take you back to the summer of 1972 when Gilbert O’ Sullivan had a huge hit with “Alone Again, Naturally.” I was a teenager at the time, just turning 17, and a music lover. Somehow, though, I couldn’t get the attraction or the popularity of this song. I think I complained about it in the presence of my parents, both of whom were in their 40’s at the time, and they stood up for the song. It seemed all adults could hear something in the song that I, in my youth, simply could not hear.
My cousin Doreen became a huge Gilbert O’ Sullivan fan, but I am not sure it so much had to do with the song as the fact that she was Irish and he was Irish and she just loved all things Irish. So she never seemed to have any wise insight into the song that I was missing.
The big soft rock hit of the summer of 1972 came and went. I honestly had not given it much thought since then, probably going for years without hearing it, until that June day in 2013 when the powerful lyrics seared into me for the first time. Suddenly, every word was heartbreaking, every word rang true, every word I knew in my heart. Tears were pooling in my eyes as I turned off Colonial onto Fowler, afraid I’d hit the median for lack of vision. But my eyes and my ears had been opened for the very first time to what my parents were hearing back in the summer of 1972 — grief is grief. It does not end. We will always feel alone in the world at some point. We will risk love only to fail, and we may even consider life is not worth living. Most of all, at some point we will probably doubt the existence of God. Even when we think it ends, it is not really over. Grief is part of our humanness. We can’t just buck up and get over it.
The most stressing part about this for me is two-fold. When the song first came out, my parents had not even begun to experience the grief they would carry, starting that very August. It would be that month that my dad would suddenly lose his uncle, a man who was his surrogate father. When my dad told me Uncle Frank had died he said, “This is the worst thing that could happen.” Little did he know that later that same month his 7-year-old son would be diagnosed with leukemia and would not live three years.
Grief. It is everywhere. It is in our very souls. But rarely is it so clearly articulated in a Top Ten hit as it was in 1972.