Music, Movies, and Books: Offering a Comfort When Nothing Else Can

By: Joshua P. Colicino
Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The year was 2012. I was 15 years old. My brother and sister were in the midst of their college years, my parents were hard at work, and it was also the year my grandfather was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

I’ll tell you a little bit about my grandfather. To us grandkids, he was a goofy, dry-witted guy who always had a smile on his face and cracked a good joke or two at the dinner table. He was the strict Irish patriarch that dominated the television for Nova and Monty Python to my mother. His whistle could be heard from down the street, beckoning my mother and her six siblings home. Despite his strictness, he was a devout man of God, as a founding member of their Catholic Church in Kill Devil Hills, NC, and a Eucharistic minister for many years there and St. Anthony’s in Oceanside, NY. He had a heart of pure gold, which made that diagnosis all the more heartbreaking.

So, let’s go back to 2012. 15-year-old me, between 9th and 10th grade, struggling with the news that my grandfather was dying. When the diagnosis came in, all hands were on deck. All of Mom’s family went into protective mode. They rushed themselves down to North Carolina to clean the house, care for the garden, do the food shopping, make my grandfather comfortable, and provide extra sets of hands for my grandmother. We went in shifts to ensure someone could always be down there. Shifts lasted a week or so and soon was switched with the next available sibling. During our initial two weeks, we got to see him and share our thoughts with them. However, we would soon return two weeks later to do it all over again. 

All of this is the context for what I am about to share. This shift down to my grandfather’s side, it was only my mom and myself. My dad, brother, and sister all had to continue to work and couldn’t get any more time off. We took another drive down from Long Island down to North Carolina, and we made it in a record six and a half hours. During that drive, however, we took turns picking out CDs to listen to on our exodus. In particular, one CD was a Singers and Songwriters compilation from 1972-73, music that my mom grew up with and was passed down to me. We jammed out to Carly Simon, America’s “Horse with No Name,” and “Nights in White Satin” from Moody Blues.

But there was one that we always remember and forever associate with that journey, and by extension, my grandfather: Bill Wither’s “Lean on Me.” When that simple piano tune started to play, it was like a candle was lit in my heart. So much emotion and soul packed into those simple chords. And then Bill started to sing, softly at first, only to build up into his passionate, heartfelt chorus:

               Lean On me when you’re not strong!

              And I’ll be your friend- I’ll help you carry on!

              It won’t be long till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on!

Soon, my mom and I were singing our hearts out as we drove through the flat Delaware plains, smiling and crying at the same time as we connected to the simple words Mr. Withers shared with us. At that moment in time, there was nothing in the world except us, that song, and the love we had for my grandpa. We leaned on each other in every way we needed.

A few days after we arrived back in North Carolina, my grandpa passed away. And over the next few days, I could catch my mom singing that song to herself, through the tears and the pain. Years from then, when that song comes on, there is no dry eye between us. Every time that song comes on, grandpa is with us and letting us know that we can still lean on him when we need it and that nothing can separate us from that fact.

Music can be a potent tool when getting through the loss of a beloved family member or friend. Music can move you; music can be the words that you aren’t able to speak yourself. Music makes you feel all the anger, the guilt, the sadness all at once and transform those feelings into beautiful forms of expression. And it isn’t the only thing that you can use to connect to the ones you have lost.

While music is a powerful tool when handling emotions, what about those instances where the emotions are a bit too much? What about the times where you want to remember them, but putting that song or music genre on is just a bit too painful right now?

Other forms of media can also fill in that spot perfectly. Going back to my grandpa, while he was never a big movie person, one of his favorite series and movies were the Monty Python troupe. He had every season of “The Flying Circus” on DVD and could throw in a good Holy Grail quote when he needed to. Watching those movies and television shows, I can’t help but think of my grandpa, enjoying those things in his time on the Earth with us and how his joy influenced how I felt about those things. Another great example is about my dad’s father, my Poppy. We lost Poppy when I was a few years younger than 15, but he had a laugh that I still can hear in my head from time to time. He, too, had his media passions, and his focus was more on old John Wayne westerns. He adored them so much to the point where he kept an old portrait of John Wayne in a very special room of the house. While Westerns aren’t typically my style, I’ll always get a smile on my face when I watch Mr. Wayne ride through the desert terrain to save the day.

In all these examples and vignettes I’ve shared, the simple message of it all is this: the media you love or, more so, the media that your loved ones have enjoyed throughout their life can bring you comfort in a way that nothing else can. It can become that escape from the traditional dealings of grief and embrace your loved one through their escapes. If your grandpa had a favorite movie or film genre like mine did, put them on the next time you’re thinking of them. If your mom had a favorite book that she just couldn’t put down, pick it up yourself and give it a read. And if there is a song, or an artist, that moves you and brings tears to your eyes, put them on when you think of the person you love. Words can only do so much, so when words fail, let these means speak for you.

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