Then Sings My Soul

I’ve been intending to write this for a couple of months now, but it requires “going there” and I guess I just haven’t felt like doing that. Now, I find myself grieving the loss of two uncles so it seemed like the appropriate time to write.

Just before Thanksgiving, my uncle Steve’s main squeeze passed away after years of fighting lung cancer. It was painful to watch her form dwindle down to skin and bones and to see her playful, mischievous spirit abandon her.  I’ve learned that death, whether I expect it coming or not, isn’t something I can ever feel prepared for. When Steve’s Cris died, it was like all of my feelings were trapped in the purgatory of not knowing whether to feel deep sadness at losing her forever or to feel relief that she was no longer going to be suffering.

And it’s not like this experience is brand new to me; I’ve definitely dealt with my fair share of death (particularly the untimely, gone-too-soon variety). When my grandpa passed away at the age of 94 just days before his 95th birthday and just a few months shy of getting to see his beloved Chicago Cubs win the World Series, it hurt like a thousand knives to the chest and I wasn’t sure how to recover. What made it worse was that I wasn’t able to make it to his funeral.

You know the saying, “always the bridesmaid, never the bride”? I’m always the wedding singer, never the bridesmaid. And, of course, always the funeral singer. It occurred to me not long before Cris died that maybe the reason I hadn’t fully been able to have closure on Grandpa’s death was because I didn’t get to sing at his funeral. There’s only one other funeral I attended that I wasn’t asked to sing and I also never fully processed her death. So, I figured there was something to that, and when I heard that Cris died, I immediately volunteered to sing. I knew I couldn’t carry another load of unprocessed grief.

I chose to sing the song “To Where You Are” by Josh Groban for her service; the lyrics just seemed perfect. However, the lyrics are also powerful, gut-wrenching, sob-inducing lyrics and because this happened so quickly, I didn’t have a lot of time to emotionally prepare myself to sing these words – especially with Steve right there in the front row.

Guys, funeral singing is HARD. It usually requires me to go to some superhuman (or super-robot?) place where I am numb enough to my feelings to get through the song. But THIS song… let me just share the lyrics here in case you don’t already know them:

Who can say for certain
Maybe you’re still here
I feel you all around me
Your memories so clear
Deep in the stillness
I can hear you speak
You’re still an inspiration
Can it be
That you are mine
Forever love
And you are watching over me from up above
Fly me up to where you are
Beyond the distant star
I wish upon tonight
To see you smile
If only for awhile to know you’re there
A breath away’s not far
To where you are
Are you gently sleeping
Here inside my dream
And isn’t faith believing
All power can’t be seen
As my heart holds you
Just one beat away
I cherish all you gave me everyday
‘Cause you are mine
Forever love
Watching me from up above
And I believe
That angels breathe
And that love will live on and never leave
Fly me up
To where you are
Beyond the distant star
I wish upon tonight
To see you smile
If only for awhile
To know you’re there
A breath away’s not far
To where you are
I know you’re there
A breath away’s not far
To where you are

Right. So those lyrics are mean to an emotional funeral singer, which I absolutely can be if I can’t find my inner superhuman robot self. So my challenge became figuring out how to get through this song without totally losing it.

I decided to try something slightly different than what I usually do to connect to a song. There is some semblance of happiness in the song, so I asked myself, “what is something that makes me happy no matter what is going on around me?”

Cats.

(The animal, definitely not the musical.)

Okay, cats. “Who is a cat that I love that won’t make me cry thinking about it?” Definitely not our two cats who are no longer with us because that would equal instant tears. I thought of our best friends’ cat, Fiona, who I ADORE and who I had just seen about a week before and would be seeing again for Thanksgiving.

I mean… come on. Don’t you just want to bury your face in that soft, squishy belly?

Okay, back to my story. I knew I could be happy if I disciplined myself to think about Fiona. I started thinking about how I could interpret the lyrics to be about her – about looking forward to seeing her:

  • Fiona LOVES to sit up high –  and you’re watching over me from up above – fly me up to where you are beyond the distant star
  • I wish upon tonight to see you smile (hear you purr)
  • If only for awhile to know you’re there, a breath (sweet, sleeping, kitty breath) away’s not far from where you are

Awesome. That’s the chorus. The first verse suddenly became much easier because there’s a cat that meows outside my door at night (maybe you’re still here, deep in the stillness, I can hear you speak) and I had just seen her a few days ago (your memory’s so clear). And I could totally consider Fiona a “forever love” without crying.

Now, truthfully, I seriously thought I’d lost my mind when I came up with this solution, BUT I TRIED IT AND IT WORKED. I got through the song with an authentic, grounded smile on my face and a sound in my voice that still had a sense of longing. Everyone else was crying but I stayed focused on Fiona and made it through to the end.

After her service ended, we went to the cemetery for the graveside ceremony. Right before Cris died, when I was with Fiona, one of my best friends suggested that maybe if I find out what song I’d have been asked to sing if I were able to go to Grandpa’s funeral, that I could just find a time in my life to sing it to him and see if that helps me deal with my lingering grief. I found out Cris was being buried in a cemetery directly across from the cemetery Grandpa was buried in, so I decided I’d do one better than my friend suggested:  I’d go to his actual grave to sing him my song.

I asked my Grandma what she would’ve asked me to sing at the funeral. She thought for a minute and then said, “well, George always said he wanted the song “How Great Thou Art” but I don’t like that song.” I love my grandma more than I have words to express and when she leaves this earth it’s going to be incredibly rough for me, but she is more than a bit stubborn and definitely has always worn the pants. Needless to say, my mom and I were stunned at this news that Grandpa had a dying wish that wasn’t granted, but we were about to make it right. When Cris’s funeral and family time came to an end, Mom and I changed into something warmer and she drove me up to the cemetery across the street from Cris to pay Grandpa a visit.

As we pulled into the cemetery and headed down the path to the row where Grandpa is buried, we saw the most unusual sight – a deer lounging among the tombstones.

We drove quietly past the deer and wondered what it would think of me singing a few feet away from it. We got out of the car and the deer stayed in place, like she was guarding the grave of someone she once knew.  I brought up the lyrics on my phone, took a deep breath,  glanced down at Grandpa’s name, and then looked into the sky as I started to sing the verse:

O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy power throughout the universe displayed

Mom said the deer stood up and watched me for a minute and then turned and made its way back into the woods.

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art…

WOW. “Then sings my soul”. I don’t know how I’ve never really considered that before in this song, but that’s EXACTLY what was happening. And it’s exactly what my soul needed – to sing. To release my grief into the sound waves produced by my voice and my soul.  A tear came to my eye and a quiver to my voice each time I sang the lyrics “then sings my soul” and when it was over, my mom and I hugged and cried. I felt like I’d gotten the closure I so desperately needed, and we both felt like maybe Grandpa got a little closure of his own with his better-late-than-never wish being granted.

Sometimes as singers we have to show up in ways that are far more challenging than how we show up in our careers. As a vocal coach, helping singers connect emotionally to their songs is my FORTE. As a singer, I also find this to be a real strength of mine. But in this emotionally elevated circumstance, where my heart was on my sleeve and I was too zoomed in to my own pain to allow it to fuel me, I felt very challenged by something I know that I know that I know how to do. Sometimes even our singing careers challenge us to connect to songs we can’t relate to or that we can’t find any common ground with and yet we still have to make it work.

If you are having a make it work moment  in your singing and need some guidance, reach out. Let’s get on the phone and talk about what it would look like to work together. Schedule your free Vocal Breakthrough Session here.