Thursday, June 7, 2018

Music Minute: Dance Again - Grief is Healing

Peoria based singer-songwriter Nathan Peterson has launched an ambitious and cathartic project, Dance Again: Grief is Healing, a raw and unfiltered look at loss, love, and healing. With Dance Again, Peterson examines the heart of a father who lost his 1-year-old daughter after a 14-month fight for her life. 

Olivia Peterson, the Peterson’s fourth child, was born in January 2015 with a chromosomal disease called Trisomy 18, which according to the medical community, rendered her “incompatible with life.” After a miraculous entry into the world, Olivia defied medical reasoning and science for an incredible 14 months. She celebrated her one-year birthday, learned to smile, learned to laugh, and was able to hold her head up for a few seconds at a time — all things her family was told would never happen. 

Shortly after his daughter’s passing, Peterson released a cathartic solo album, accompanied by his first book, both titled So Am I: 14 Months of Life, Living, and Letting Go. The project was an outlet to share a new-found perspective on life, one that he learned from a girl deemed “incompatible” with living. Shortly after the release of So Am I, Peterson had started work on the second half of the story, an album and accompanying book called Dance Again: Grief is Healing. This latest album + book offering examines the darkness, depression, anger, and bewilderment of the loss of a child, in addition to the process of finding life and beauty in the darkness. The songs on Dance Again follow Peterson’s experience of grief, from a loss of will to go on, to an intense anger and hatred toward God, to guilt for all the “wrong feelings”, and finally the gentle realization that he didn’t need to rush to get up, he didn’t have to be strong… he could only be where he was. 

While Peterson’s loss is unique and very personal, he has learned that “Grief is a process for anyone who has lost anything — for anyone in need of healing — which may be all of us. My grief over the loss of my daughter,” says Peterson, “may differ in circumstance and severity to another person’s grief, but it’s the same feeling and the same process, which makes it universal.” 

The album is currently in process, being recorded in Peterson’s home studio — the same home where his daughter began and ended her life. In contrast to modern recording fashion, Peterson’s voice and guitar (and occasional yell from one of his other four children) are being recorded live and simultaneously through a single ribbon microphone from 1953 — raw and unfiltered, to match his story. Peterson is focused on creating physical products to give to listeners—something with weight, to be held and felt. 

I had a chance to interview him to learn more. It's lengthy but it's well worth the read.

Why did you decide to work on this project?

I had to.

I’d been part of a band the 18 years prior, but because Olivia needed us 24/7, I couldn’t play with the band during her life. The most I could do logistically was to sneak away during one of Olivia’s “good days” (or hours) and get some writing done, record a track, write a chapter. When I finally started scheduling concerts, I had to be able to cancel them last-minute, so everything had to become just me and a guitar.

That’s logistically why I formatted this project and the last few years the way I have.

Beyond logistics, I had to make this project because it was what was in me during this time. I think that’s all any artist can say: “I can only offer what is alive inside me—nothing more and nothing less.” This project is my inner world over the past few years, as a father to Olivia during her life and after her passing, as a father to my other children, as a husband to my wife, as an artist, as a human being. This is everything that happened inside me during that time—nothing more and nothing less.

There may be a small missional element as well, but I don’t know that I want to listen to that voice just yet. Our situation with Olivia is unique to us, but the feelings we have experienced are universal. There are many cultural lies we had to shed during this time to be able to be present and not miss Olivia’s life, or the process of healing after her death. Those cultural lies are there for all of us, and I feel excited thinking about being a part of shining a light on them and creating a path for others to take, to shed those same lies in their own lives. I feel there is a movement—a huge wave—coming to our culture which will bring a lot of much-needed freedom and healing in regards to fear, our perception of pain, our definition of “living”. I’m excited about all of that and I do hope this project is part of that process for others. But all that being said, I feel that wave is already coming, it’s not something I have any control over, just like I couldn’t control it in my own life—I want to keep my motives less “save the world” and more about being present with my own process and allowing the healing that is happening in my own self.

Why is it so important for people who have experienced loss to realize that grief is part of healing?

Before Olivia died, I pictured grief as a necessary step in the process—something to be “gotten through” in order for healing to come. Now I realize that there is no separating grief from healing. Grief is the process by which we are healed. Grief is healing.

This shift is so important because it moves the pain and suffering and insanity of grief from a thing to be tolerated or “gotten through”, to a thing to be accepted and even cherished. Like in childbirth, the pain is good because it is a signal that new life is coming.

I now see grief as clarity. It is a lack of layers which we are usually comforted by. With those layers folded back, the discomfort is unbearable. But a wound can’t be healed if there is something in the way. It needs to be open in order to be healed. Grief is the feeling of being open—the necessary position for healing.

How can parents support other parents who have lost a child?

I can think of lots of things which are maybe not as supportive as we mean for them to be! :) I could make a long list, but you’re probably already thinking of a bunch of examples now.

Basically, anything which is intended to take away the pain or expedite the grieving process is not actually helpful.

No one wants to see someone they love in pain.  But sometimes by trying to reduce the pain of our friend, we are subconsciously looking for relief for ourselves. We not only feel our friend’s pain, but we feel helpless. No one wants to feel helpless.

The best thing we can do as a friend of someone who has lost a child is to be willing to feel pain and helplessness with them.

No one wants to hear that. In our culture, we want to fix it. Distract from it. Numb it. Rush it. But in this case, the pain we’re wishing away is the very thing which is bringing healing—the pain and discomfort of grief has to be allowed to remain and to do its work until it is finishes, even if it takes a lifetime. That is a very difficult thing for a griever to accept—it is just as difficult for a friend to accept.

Not only can removing the pain reduce healing, but it can reduce a connection we have with our lost loved one. When a huge wave of sadness would hit me, it hurt, but it also brought comfort—somehow it connected me to Olivia. I felt like I was right there with her. I felt honored to feel that pain. When a well-meaning friend would try to do something to reduce that pain it felt to me like they were trying to reduce my connection with Olivia. I had to distance myself from friends who would do that. I knew they meant well, but I didn’t have the energy to explain things to them and I wasn’t willing to lose a single iota of connection with Olivia—even if it hurt.

Friends who climbed down into the pit with us, not to pull us out, but only to be with us—to feel the pain and helplessness with us… those are the friends we drew near to during our grief (still now).

Where can parents who have lost a child find support?

I can only tell you where we found support.

We found support from friends who climbed down into the pit and felt our pain with us.

We found support from each other, but only some of the time. Something like 90% or more parents of a lost child end up getting divorced. We get that now. But there were times here and there when one of us was able to give a kind of love and understanding to the other that could never have come from anywhere else in the world.

We found support from within. We’re so programmed to seek relief from discomfort by using external means. Social media and buying new things and getting back to work were such a big draw for me during the year following Olivias death. But I could feel that I was pulling away from myself—from where I was—in order to go after those things. It wasn’t about enjoying working, it was about avoiding what was happening inside. But the location of the pain—deep in the center of myself—was also the location of the healing. Simple things like breathing and walking and just being have been my greatest sources of healing. I’ve realized how synonymous breathing, being, and resting are with living. I’ve realized how much of a spiritual practice it is to just breathe. I’ve realized how little I allowed myself to do that before Olivia. I’ve realized that I’m not just being healed from a shattered heart from losing my daughter, but I am being healed from a lifetime of worry, anxiety, and being everywhere other than where I am… I’m being healed from a lifetime of not-living. In this way, I realize that Olivia’s life and her death—the joy and the pain—are saving my life.

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