I want you to imagine you’re listening to a child play the piano. This particular child is relatively new to piano and has just started learning the complicated business playing chords. As you listen to her play, you notice that some chords sound pleasant and pleasing, but every once in a while she hits the wrong note and the chord sounds jarring and harsh. The unpleasant chords make you think, “oh that can’t be right,” and you sit cringed and frozen until she realizes her mistake and makes the chord pretty again.
Dissonance in music refers to chords made up of notes that when played together sound like the musical equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Although in my example the dissonant chords we’re played in error, often composers intentionally used these sounds in their music to create emotion and atmosphere. Dissonant tones are unstable and inherently create tension, so that the listener instinctually feels as though they want them to resolve to more pleasant chords (i.e. consonance). You may hear dissonant sounds in every day life, for example a babies cry, a blood curdling scream, or the buzzer on your alarm clock.
(Please excuse my elementary explanation of these music concepts. Although I was technically a music major for all of one semester my freshman year in college, I also had a dual minor in homesick misery and downloading music on Napster.)
Anyway, here’s a brief example of consonant vs. dissonant:
I’ve always wished we had our own individual soundtracks to play in the background of our lives. I imagine our music would sound pleasant and harmonious, until the inevitable day when the dark themes of loss make their way onto the score.
Out of nowhere the music would start to twist and turn in crooked and clashing notes until reaching a final dissonant chord. Then just like that the song would be over; as though someone played a shrill and terrifying chord on a piano and then slammed the lid shut. Although at the time you intellectually knew your soundtrack would never sound the same; your heart and body remained frozen, tense and aching, waiting for those dark notes to turn light again.
The good news is that most of grief’s harshness eventually softens. The bad news is, because your loved one is gone, some things will always feel a little unresolved. Take the pain caused by things left unsaid, for example. Death makes telling your loved one things like “I love you”, “I’m sorry”, “I forgive you”, “I know”, or “I wish I had known” impossible. You will never feel the release of knowing you’ve said everything you wanted to say. This aspect of your relationship will always remain suspended on a sharp and unpleasant note and longing for rest or resolution.
This reality bothers me because I can’t stop wanting to say things to the people I love. When you love someone, there is never really a point where you think – “Okay, I’ve had all the conversations I want to have with you.” The truth is that it can be hard to live with a head full of things left unsaid. Sadly, this is a problem without a perfect solution. Nevertheless, there are things you can do to help yourself cope with some of your pain and frustration.
How to Handle Things Left Unsaid
Find a way to say what you need to say anyway:
You wish you could speak to your loved one, but you can’t. So instead you may be having an ongoing inner dialogue filled with wishes, questions, and regret. The more things spin around in your head, the less perspective you’re likely to have and the more anxiety you’re likely to feel.
Find a way to direct this conversation outward; you would be surprised how different it might sound when you’re able to say it out loud or even write it down on a piece of paper. It may feel crazy to have these conversations because your loved one can’t answer back, but it’s not. Tell your loved one how you feel and tell them what you wish you could say. Some ideas for doing this include:
- Write them a letter
- Speak to them in a place where you feel close to them
- Have an imagined conversation with them. You can even imagine what they might say in return.
- Speak about your thoughts and questions with someone else who was close with the person who died.
Work on accepting what you can’t change
I’m sure you guys have heard of the Serenity Prayer. Originally authored by Reinhold Niebuhr and, most notably, used by twelve-step programs.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Grappling with unresolved issues and things left unsaid is common after a death, but staying focused on your anger and regret toward “if only’s” is a story without an end. It’s often necessary to find a way to cope with the things you can’t change, in order to focus on those you can.
Work on accepting your guilt and regret
Although people will often tell you – “Regret nothing! Don’t feel guilty!” – guilt and regret are very common and normal experiences in grief. We’ve actually written pretty extensively on this topic so, if this is something you struggle with, you should check out the following articles.
Work on finding forgiveness for yourself and for your loved one
Forgiveness can go a long way to soothe the burn of anger, but for many reasons it can seem out of reach; especially when the person you’re angry at has died. People often have misgivings about forgiveness because they think it’s unattainable, but this doesn’t have to be true. Once again, we’ve written extensive posts on this topic.
What have we left unsaid? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
Subscribe to What’s Your Grief