Carrie and Lowell and the Power of Experiencing Grief in Community

I’ve been a Sufjan Stevens fan for a decade now. Ever since hearing his cover of “Come Thou Fount” way back in sophomore year of college, I’ve been hooked on his unique guitar work, lilting and emotional voice work, and lyrical poeticism. I’ve followed his work throughout his experimental phases and thanked him in the acknowledgements of my book for providing me with a fabulous writing soundtrack. For years, he’s been the music I turn to when I want calm, quiet, peacefulness.

But his latest studio album – Carrie and Lowell – hits me in a completely different way. There is no peace in listening to this album – at least not at first. Written about the death of his mother and the grief process that stems from the passing of a parent, Carrie and Lowell reaches right into my chest and clamps onto my heart, making it hard to breathe, hard to think.

And somehow, there’s something deeply healing in that feeling.

Do I care if I survive this?
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Last year at this time, I was going to the hospital every day, accompanying my mom to occupational and physical therapy as we hoped the work would help her to regain some strength lost to months of bed rest and illness. But instead of getting better, she was getting worse. She was blacking out while walking down the hall; she wasn’t eating. I remember going home at night, laying in bed, and thinking as I drifted off to sleep: “2014 is going to be the year I lose my mother.”

I didn’t want to think it true. There was a lot of anger that spring. Anger at her doctors for tossing the responsibility for her diagnoses between departments. Anger at her therapists for pushing her beyond her limits. Anger at the helplessness of it all, knowing that there was something more wrong with her than three heart stents could fix.

At the end of May, we finally got a diagnosis – amyloidosis, one of those diseases you hear about on House, MD. By the time we knew what our enemy was, it was already too late to fight it. She passed on in July.

Grief is a strange process – one in which you feel a deep need to connect with other humans and et you feel so isolated and alone. You don’t want to talk too openly about your grief because dealing with those emotions leaves people feeling helpless and awkward. But you feel like if you don’t find some outlet, you might burst from the pain of holding it all together.

In grief, I’ve rediscovered the importance of community. When Carrie and Lowell became available for streaming last week, ahead of tomorrow’s release, I discovered a wave of people at different points in the grieving process, coming together to commiserate over this piece of art that instantly became something more than just a few guitars and Sufjan’s voice.

There is immense value in the communal expression of emotion through art. One or two songs from an artist I’ve never met and don’t know has ministered to me more in the past week than the whole of kind statements from friends and family in the months since the funeral. Sometimes, the unconventional, the unexpected can help you find a space to let things go, to be fully human. Sometimes, we just need to be broken.

Blind faith, God's grace, nothing else left to impart

I can’t look at Carrie and Lowell objectively. It’s impossible for me to step back from it and judge the poetics and the guitars and the vocals. It’s impossible for me to place it in categories with other albums, with other works of art. And it is the deep forged connection with grief that makes the project of evaluating art so impossible.

But what I can tell you is that this art is worthwhile, especially if you are grieving. Not every part will be meaningful to every person, but that’s part of engaging with and understanding art to begin with – you take what hits you and leave the rest. And with an album so personal, so vulnerable, and so raw, it is impossible not to see yourself within the strings and the guitars and the pleading, mournful voices.

The true beauty here is the idea that we are not alone in our grief, that others have gone before and others are with us in this work. We recognize that we are not the only ones who feel like shadows, who are wondering what song to sing for the dead and what it means to die with dignity.

And this, to me, is the beauty of church. Church is not for the joyous, just as doctors are not for the healthy. Church is a place where we can come together in our pain, in our anger, in our grief, and find solidarity and peace.