Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Grateful Dead as Grief Advisors

I didn’t listen to the Grateful Dead when I was growing up in Wisconsin, too busy, I suppose, hiking in the woods. Then I went to college and got serious for a smattering of years. When I moved to California I rediscovered one and found the other.

Mickey Hart, one of the Dead’s two drummers, was my introduction when he began writing about the complex rhythms and percussion instruments indigenous to various cultures around the world. This got my attention because I had been heavy into drums in high school and loved the Japanese Taiko drums. On the Planet Drum CD, for example, there is a recording of “Udu Chant” (Udu, Nigeria) with the notation that ‘Throughout history, the struggles of Life and Death have often been portrayed in ritual using percussion.’

According to one version Jerry Garcia found the group’s name in a book of folklore — "the soul of a dead person, or his angel, showing gratitude to someone who, as an act of charity, arranged their burial." 

Grief is an improv on prompts left by the shadows.

Much of the time, Dead performances were improvs, with musicians picking up what the previous soloist had done and doing something creative with it, shifting the emotion and taking it somewhere else. The songs were long, not the 3-4 minutes ditties that play on the radio. Dead songs went on and on. They were an experience.

The lyrics in “The Wheel” speak of the movement and nature of life — “The wheel keeps turning. You can’t hold on and you can’t go back.”

Grief has a cadence, if we have the courage to open ourselves to its movement.

In Yosemite, I listen to the cadence of nature. When I sit next to wild rivers, I can hear its rhythms as it flows by, moving and dancing, bringing with it all that it has been and going on to become what it will be, completely giving itself over to the passion of life.

There’s also a cadence to hiking. A rhythm develops when my arms and legs move together and I settle into a steady pace. Thoughts and feeling rise from where they’ve been waiting and pass by. Some I hold on to and think about for a while, until it’s time to let them flow on.

We have to feel our heart’s cadence before we can sing our heart’s song.

The music written on the page is only the beginning. The song begins when we let ourselves sing what is flowing through our hearts.


There are a host of observances in the coming week, among them All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), Samhain (Celtic), and The Day of the Dead (Mexican, with its skeletons and skulls). Take time to listen and be still, to remember and talk with your dead. Light a candle or two.

(The image above is based on a painting by © Martha Liebenow.)