A knot sat in my throat for days. As I rode down the winding and rugged road to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the Los Padres Forest, I was aware that a Queen called Aretha Franklin was dying. I felt this deep sense that I was dying with her.
The next morning along with the wake up bell at the Center, all of her songs flooded my head. Spirit In the Dark and Say A Little Prayer lifted me from my bed, swirled around me as I put on my Zen robes for early morning meditation. The songs continued while I chanted the Heart Sutra at service that morning. Chanting the Zen ancestors all seemed to go along together very well with the impending loss of a Queen.
The next day, while hanging out at the Tassajara bathhouse, a student of mine informed me Aretha Franklin had died. I tried not to cry because I was afraid that the tears would never stop. Since my Sangha is of African descent, we spent time invoking Aretha’s name and calling out our favorite songs. The candle was low, the Buddha statue high, and all that we needed was there to hold us in love.
About seven days went by before the river of loss came rushing over me. I was home reading a story about her memorial in Detroit and how a rainbow appeared. I didn’t know Aretha Franklin personally, but I felt that I knew her. She knew black people and loved us. She was singing for us. Her songs were touched with the light we needed as black people suffering under blatant hatred. There are many people who sing well, but few can profess to shine light over an entire world with their voice and their presence. In essence, her music was her ministry. She brought healing to the hearts of those in despair. Her message was not the words or the notes but the deep wholeheartedness of how she transmitted her light from her soul to us. She was soul music. It is in the place of loss and grief that we all want someone to sing to us.
In times of grief, accepting the invitation to sing might be one of the best medicines for loss. It is not a fluke that every spiritual tradition sings and drums. In Buddhism, we chant, ring bells, and use the water drum called the mokugyo. In many indigenous traditions, songs are used to connect us to the spirit of ancestors. During the civil rights movement, songs were rendered to unite despite our heavy hearts. In my younger days, when I sang with a Christian gospel ensemble, we walked away full, joyful, and complete from our offering of songs.
Songs cannot touch the grief we feel unless we open ourselves to them. Spiritual songs during times of loss can remind us that we have not only lost a friend, a job, a house, or a beloved, but something of ourselves that we had forgotten is returned to us. Perhaps we remember we are interconnected with each other. Singing, chanting, or drumming together gives us a sense of being joined in the grief. We are never alone in grief if we can reach out in a vulnerable state and join the circle.
Spiritual music at times of grief and loss can bring us closer to our inner worlds individually and our collective intimacy that is often neglected until we experience loss. Loss throws us together like fish in the sea. We can’t help but ride the waves together, our tears understood, and our hearts open. We don’t have to speak of the loss because the emotions in our eyes say everything.
Loss and grief brings community ritual. I’m writing in the aftermath of the murder of Nia Wilson, a young black woman who was stabbed to death by a white supremacist. The community outpouring for this loss served as a grief ritual. There was song and prayer. Often times the sound of grief is not audible until we can come together safely and let loose the pain. Say her name – Nia Wilson.
Loss and grief can be a transformational experience. At the point of loss and grief, one’s life can appear meaningless or inauthentic. We grieve everything we could have done to prevent the loss. We might feel that we didn’t do something good enough. In an effort to feel satisfied with life, we may end up losing all the things that once satisfied us. When we feel we have lost everything, the depth of such loss is so visceral it can’t be ignored. At a place of such shifting we are challenged to rebuild our fantasies based on comparisons of others or to build upon what we know to be true or authentic for our lives. It is up to us to use the wings of loss and grief to take us where we have been afraid to go.
Most of all, loss and grief gives us an opportunity to walk our talk. Do we trust the spiritual paths we have walked for many years? Do we trust the medicine? Is meditation respected as a way to experience peace? During grief and loss, we can rediscover what feeds us. Are we emaciated or full? Are we lifted or are we weighed down by religious or spiritual dogma? Loss is a time to be careful of what we pick up to replace such loss. We must grieve long and hard before the familiar fades and the new appears to us.
When the time came, my tears for Aretha gushed out without any warning. I made a loud noise. The knot in my throat was bigger than I’d imagined. I was jolted by it. I felt this way when Martin Luther King. Jr. was assassinated. “What was this knot?” Terror, I said. Who would speak for us black people in King’s case? And in Aretha’s case, who would sing soul songs to soothe our loss and grief?
I could only keep breathing knowing that there is no savior other than the person within. In this view, yes, life can be frightening or it can be freeing. I invite you to sing, chant, and drum your way through the tragedies and disappointments. It’s the way of the ancient ones. Tried and true.
Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, PhD, a Soto Zen priest, was born to parents who migrated from rural Louisiana and settled in Los Angeles, where she was born and raised with her two sisters. She is the author of The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality, and Gender; Tell Me Something About Buddhism; and, most recently, Sanctuary: A Meditation on Home, Homelessness, and Belonging.