songs about grief and healing

Dance Again, album

Dec 2018

I wrote and recorded this album during the 14 months following our daughter Olivia’s passing.

Download and stream here

Pre-Order the vinyl here (ships Jan/Feb 2018)

01 Dance again

This is the first song I wrote after our daughter Olivia passed away.

It had been a few months; I thought I’d better write something. All I could think was, “I don’t want to write another song.” I didn’t want to do much of anything again. I didn’t want to take more steps forward while Olivia’s life was in our past.

I could feel time continuing. I could feel the world continuing to spin. It was early spring and grass was beginning to grow again. I hated it. Something about things continuing to live while my daughter was dead felt so wrong to me.

So I wrote this song.

I don’t want to dance again. Tell the music not to play.

The world kept spinning.

I originally wrote this song as a metaphor. “Dancing” meant writing songs. Working. Going on living. Then, about 6 months after Olivia passed away, in the midst of some of the darkest moments of my entire life, Heather gathered the family to tell us she was pregnant again.

I immediately had a picture of fresh, clean, cold water rushing through deep open wounds… quickly followed by overwhelming fear and anger.

I don’t want to dance again. Tell the music not to play.

We were both angry. We felt guilty for that, but neither of us could imagine having another baby. We could barely brush our teeth. How were we going to take care of an infant? And beyond that fear was a much bigger one: We were going to go to that hospital again. We were going to be in that delivery room again. We were going to walk back through every step we took with Olivia. The sonograms. The birth. The coming home. Holding a crying baby in the living room in the middle of the night, dancing.

I can’t express how badly I wanted to do that again, but with Olivia. If I couldn’t do it with her, I didn’t want to ever do it again.

I don’t want to dance again. Tell the music not to play.

Even scarier than the pain of re-tracing our steps with Olivia was the thought of forgetting her. I was so afraid that this new child would take Olivia’s place, and I would forget her.

Benjamin (means “son of my pain”) Irving (means “fresh water”) Peterson was born about 14 months after Olivia passed away.

Walking into the operating room felt just like it felt with Olivia. I felt 100% sure, deep in my bones, that this baby was about to die. My mind knew he didn’t have Olivia’s condition, but my body was braced for tragedy. The moment Benjamin was born—the second I saw his face—I had the overwhelming sense that Ben was not Olivia. He was an entirely separate person. A beautiful person who I loved. Not in place of Olivia but in addition.

There was no less pain… in fact, there was more pain. But there was also joy. Not in place of pain but in addition.

Thank you Ben for being who you are: cold, clean water—rushing through the deep open wounds of our family. Not to diminish the pain or the memories of Olivia, but to clarify and heal our memories of her.

It just so happens that Ben’s favorite thing is music, and his favorite thing to do is dance.

02 Is it a sin?

I’ve never written a song like this. I’ve never written anything like this.

A friend of mine asked me six months or so after Olivia died if I had experienced any anger. I recoiled. “No, I understand why this happened… Things like this happen… It’s okay… It’s no one’s fault…” I felt so defensive. This friend obviously did’t know me. I don’t get angry at people. I’m good at forgiving. And who would I blame, anyway. God? This was nobody’s fault.

Shortly after, I was finishing one of my daily walks a couple blocks from home. I was at the intersection, waiting to cross, and I had this image in my head—of choking Jesus Christ. It was vivid and disturbing. I was filled with guilt, and these words came into my head:

Is it a sin to want to choke the life out of the lungs of Jesus Christ—to watch his last breath since I missed when my daughter closed her eyes?

The day Olivia died, we had no idea it was going to happen. She had a cold. We were all tired and crabby from being up all night with her. Heather suggested I take the kids on a bike ride and I begrudgingly loaded the three kids up and went. We rode far from our house, stopped at a coupe parks, and decided to go all the way to an ice cream shop before heading home. A few minutes before the ice cream shop, Heather called. She said Olivia was in a lot of pain and that the nurse recommended morphine. We’d had this morphine in a box in the back of our fridge since Olivia was born—having to use it felt serious. I told her to go ahead—the nurse knows what she’s doing. She asked if I wanted to come home. I said we were almost to the ice cream shop and that we would head back right after. I wasn’t worried.

I wasn’t worried, but there was a growing, uneasy feeling as we sat and ate our ice cream. It kept growing as we headed back.

About a mile from home I got another call. It was Heather’s friend who had stopped by to visit. She said Olivia had stopped breathing. She said to come back fast.

My oldest son immediately knew something was wrong. He asked if Olivia was dying. “I don’t know. It’ll be okay. But we need to ride fast.”

I had spent the previous 14 months making sure I was always there. I stopped performing outside of Peoria. I was always within a few minutes from home. I had rushed home after calls from Heather for scares before. This was surely just another scare… but I knew this was different. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t there. Please wait for me.

We rode so fast. I had a trailer for my 3-year-old and the two young boys were on bikes. I could feel my oldest son’s mind spinning. I could feel tears streaming across my face. I could feel the wind.

We pulled up to the house and our friend was waiting to take the kids. I jumped off my bike and ran around the back porch, where I’d left Heather and Olivia a few hours before.

I opened the door. Heather was standing there with Olivia. Olivia was still.

I missed it.

We spent hours crying and holding Olivia. We prayed over her and said goodbye. We played a board game as a family. It was a painful, but beautiful night. It was not evil. It felt purposeful. Good, even. And that’s how I pictured that day for six months, until I stood at this intersection and thought these words.

Is it a sin to want to choke the life out of the lungs of Jesus Christ—to watch his last breath since I missed when my daughter closed her eyes?

How much is it to ask? We knew she was going to die. We did everything we could to be good parents for her. I just wanted to be there—to see her off… to say, “It’s okay to go.” Is that unreasonable?

I walked home and wrote the words down. I was filled with rage and hate, mixed with guilt and compassion toward God. I know it must have hurt him—what happened with Olivia, watching my pain, and now hearing these words from me.

Who are you to take her away? Just because you’re God... just because I’m not.

I spent a year working on this recording... and this song spent a year working on me. During that time I struggled about whether or not to share the song. “This isn’t art. People will hate it.”

This particular recording happened as my wife pulled up the driveway with our kids. If you listen carefully you can hear one of the kids knock on my door toward the beginning, and at the very end you can hear my oldest son throwing a fit upstairs. :) I knew this was the take though. It’s not nearly as overtly angry as many other takes. But it has this beautiful balance to it—you can feel me oscillating between anger and gentleness. I love this recording.

I love this song. I know it’s a strange song to love.

It took me six months of intense grief-work to even sense that there was anger under the layers of “maturity”. If this song helps shine light on what is really there, inside another person, I will be forever pleased that I decided to share it.

03 Don’t rush to get up

During the year following Olivia’s passing, my wife and I referred to ourselves as a “pile of parts on the floor.” We couldn’t do anything. I mean, we somehow did do some things: Our kids are still alive; I wrote some things; We played some concerts. But we were so broken during that time. I did and said things I can’t believe. We considered divorce. I wondered about suicide. We were finished. Broken. A pile of parts on the floor.

This song is for that pile of a person on the floor.

This time of being so broken—so afraid—was torture. I hated how weak I was. I hated myself. I wanted to get up and be strong again, but I couldn’t. I would… it was just going to take time—much more time than I was comfortable allowing myself. I needed to heal. I was being healed. And it was important that I didn’t give in to the urge to disconnect from the parts of me which felt “weak” in order to get up and be “strong” again. The most important thing for my healing during this time was to be where I was.

It might hurt like hell, burn like coals, but at least right here we know who we are.

I took many months to record this take. I hated how slow I was working. I hated how slow I was healing.

I had this recurring dream: There was a war and my family was separated. I was trying to bring us all back to safety but I couldn’t get us all in one place. I sometimes woke up screaming. Of course I had that dream every night—we weren’t all in one place. Olivia was a couple miles away, and I couldn’t do anything about it.

She’s not going anywhere, and you’re not saving anyone, so don’t rush to get up.

Looking back at myself during that time, and still to some degree today, I see myself on an operating table. Someone was/is healing me. I don’t have to do anything. But I do have to stay. And it will take time. It’s so hard to allow ourselves time. I just want to get up and run.

04 Cry

One night shortly after Olivia passed away, Heather and I were in tears. As we wept, I heard this chorus—a song for Heather.

Go ahead and cry, it’s fine—it’s the only way for you to feel right now.

This song is for Heather… and for me… and I think for many more of us.

I hope this song replaces an unhealthy expectation to be “strong” with permission to be where we are.

05 Marathon

It's not a marathon.
You don't have to be strong.
It's okay to fall aparty.
You can only be where you are.
You don't have to control.
The waves will come, and they will go.
It's not a marathon.