Singing Through Grief

Your grief for what you’ve lost holds up a mirror to where you are so bravely working.
                                                                                                                            – Rumi

One hundred people stream into a large, elegant room at a Methodist Church in Minneapolis. The chairs are arranged in several large concentric circles. At the center is a huge elk antler surrounded by an elegant arrangement of colorful cloths, candles, stones and flowers.

We have gathered on this Father’s Day to sing through grief together. The work is being led by Laurence Cole, a wise elder and prolific creator of community songs. Many of the people in the room know and love his songs from singing them at my local song circles. Others have encountered him at singing gatherings in the region. He is a powerful presence – a vital septuagenarian with a booming voice and deep well of wisdom.

Our purpose for this five hours together is simple – to metabolize some of the grief we are carrying, individually and collectively, through song and story. Laurence developed this approach based on his experiences in collective grief with West African wisdom teachers, Malidoma and Sobonfu Some’, as well as Francis Weller, author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow.  He integrates what he has learned from these teachers with his own gifts of reflective listening, storytelling and community singing.

I am still sorting out all I learned about community grieving from our time of singing, storytelling, weeping, laughing and moving together. Here is what I know so far:

Grief is singular and universal at the same time

The details of another person’s grief story may be vastly different from our own but hearing the truth of it can help us recognize our shared humanity. Listening to these stories reminds us that everyone is carrying burdens.

Song and sound can help metabolize grief

Singing together gets us connected to each other on a visceral level – through breath and vibration. It also awakens our emotions and softens our defenses.

There is also great power in giving voice to our tears. Many of us weep silently if we weep at all. We train ourselves to do so as young children. Hearing others cry out or wail can be uncomfortable at first, but it can call forth our own grief songs.

Deep listening is medicinal

A fundamental wound for many of us is the belief that nobody else understands the grief we carry. The dominant culture in the United States creates deep isolation for those who are grieving. They are pressured to “be strong” and “get over it” quickly. To speak your grief story into a community and have it reflected back to you in words and song breaks that isolation for both speaker and listener alike.

There is solace in beauty

Stepping into the territory of grief can be frightening. There is mystery in there….and for most of us, a backlog of unshed tears. Seeing beautiful things gathered from the natural world – flowers, stones, feathers, a pottery bowl of water – can help us remember the larger community of life in which we abide.


About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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