When tragedy strikes, words waver, hearts break, and reality sharpens like a needle to your gut. How do you cope? Six years ago, I remember watching one horrific news report after another as the media reported details of the massacre at Virginia Tech. My heart broke for my friends and family who attended the university. Days passed, students returned home, names of victims were released, and the school (as well as all the families affected by the tragedy) began the long road towards healing and recovery.
My church scheduled an impromptu prayer service during the week of the shooting, and I was asked to lead those who attended in a time of song and worship. Our church grieved together and experienced community that night. Our songs stood present to the pain and gave us the words to pray when our own words ran out. Together, we rediscovered faith as we remembered our grief and our God through music. This was not the last time I would experience the healing power of song.
Years later, I worked as a Life Skills Coach for Brain Injury Survivors--people who had normal lives like yours or mine until a brain injury suddenly and tragically impaired their cognitive functions. Oftentimes, the people I worked with dealt with severe grief and depression in the aftermath of their injury.
One of the women I supported was a gifted athlete and singer until repeated surgeries on a brain tumor left her with a brain injury and damaged vocal chords. Once, while helping her clean out her guest room, I opened a closet to find crates filled with jazz and gospel records. I remember that the woman suddenly became incredibly animated. She told me about singing in her church and how wonderful her life had once been. Then, as quickly as she had opened up, she retreated into a pervasive gloom, which sucked the momentary liveliness right out of her.
She couldn't sing anymore. Her old life was gone, and it broke her heart.
Later that afternoon, we found an old keyboard buried in the back of the closet. I wiped the dust off the keys and set it up in her living room. The keyboard didn’t have speakers, so I gave the woman some headphones and tried out an idea.
“How about you hum and I play?” I said. “I play by ear, but I can’t hear the notes, so I won’t know what to play next unless you hum something.”
She took the headphones, and I played a few notes. Out of the silence, her weak voice returned a pitch. I struck a few more notes, and she responded with two more pitches. This went on for several minutes. As she gained more confidence, she began directing the progression of notes until I detected a familiar melody—an old church hymn. I asked her if she recognized the song. She thought it sounded familiar, so I shared the story behind the hymn that she, herself, had just hummed. It was written by a man whose daughters drowned at sea. He was on a boat passing the spot of the tragic event when he wrote the words, "It is well; It is well with my soul”.
She remembered the hymn from church, so I started on the melody, and she filled in the spots where my words ran out. We sang together, quiet at first, but the words of the chorus made our voices strong. We took turns—“It is well (it is well), with my soul (with my soul)”—and then, jointly, we proclaimed: “It is well! It is well with my soul!”
Over and over we sang until her voice no longer needed mine to support it. All the while, the woman with the broken heart sang without me. She sang over me with tears on her cheeks and her cracked voice remembering the strength she has in God. I thanked the Lord for I had never before heard a more beautiful rendition of the hymn.
Both of these experiences left indelible impressions on my heart about the power of music in times of grief. In response to these stories I wrote the following words for a song on my first album:
Through the pain this life brings, oh the louder I'll sing, Hallelujah
The chorus is simple and straightforward, but its simplicity is what makes it such an accessible line in times of sadness. Here's a sound byte from our first recording of it three years ago:
Our first take of this song was delicate and minimalistic. The voice was the broken centerpiece of the song and the loudest element in the mix.
For our second album, we attempted a remix that was completely different. Worship can happen in the quiet, but it also finds us at war. Sometimes, we are called to sing louder in the middle of the chaos. Our new album has a revamped version of this song which blends together drums, loops, noise, and a radio voiceover reading of one of my favorite verses. All the while, you can hear the faint refrain of "the louder I'll sing" in the background. Here's a clip:
Two versions. One song. One heart. In grief, music transcends pain, draws us out, and gives us prayers. Whether you're alone in a basement scavenging songs from sadness, or you're in the middle of a tragedy dodging a hailstorm of hurt, find your song and sing it louder.