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Understanding Tragic Loss

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By an eerie coincidence, the two works of art that I experienced before the tragic shootings in Arizona were baritone Thomas Hampson singing Gustav Mahler's Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Death of Children" in English) with the New York Philharmonic and conductor Alan Gilbert on Friday night, and a matinee showing on Saturday of the movie Rabbit Hole, which tells the story of a grief-stricken couple (played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) trying to come to terms with the loss of their four-year old son.

Mahler's Kindertotenlieder ("Songs on the Death of Children," in English) feature texts by the poet Friedrich Rückert that try to transform the incomprehensible horror of losing a child into some kind of meaningful and endurable experience. The first song "Now The Sun Will Rise as Brightly" notes that an individual's grief does not darken the entire world and that the sun -- symbolizing life -- rises again even after our most grievous losses.

In the second song, "Now I See Well, with Such Dark Flames," the parents are asked to understand that fate draws the child away towards a reunion with the cosmos: "These which now are just eyes to you, In nights to come will be but stars to you."

The third song, "When Your Dear Mother," is most like the story in Rabbit Hole. Here, the father can't believe that the child is no longer beside the mother when she comes through the door. A major tension in the film arises from the respective parents trying to understand how and when to preserve the memories of the child: do you clean out his room, or preserve it as it was for as long as you own the house? There are no answers.

The fourth song, "I Often Think They've Only Gone Out," is about willful denial of a reality too painful to confront. "It's a lovely day, oh don't be anxious, They're only out taking a long walk." But even here, Rückert tries to find a way out of the cycle of grief: "They've only gone off ahead of us...We'll catch up with them on yonder heights."

The final, song "In This Weather, In this Tumult," is storm-driven, with nature lashing out in terrifying fashion as a symbol of its power over the human condition. Repeatedly, the parent wonders why any child is put into harm's way, only to realize that no parental love is strong enough to keep a child entirely safe. After four stanzas featuring the parent lamenting fiercely over his/her powerlessness, the storm subsides, revealing, it seems, a tranquil, star-filled night. Here the parent lets go of his particular grief and finds comfort in the eternal and universal: "In this weather, in this storm, in this tumult, they are resting, as if at home in their mother's house, Not frightened by any storms, Sheltered by God's hand." After all of the anguish that has preceded it, the song somehow ends in quietly radiant calm.

Unlike the children in Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, or the child in Rabbit Hole, the people who died -- including a 9-year-old girl, Christina-Taylor Green -- or were gravely injured in the shooting in Arizona were harmed deliberately by another human being, adding a level of pain and anger to the senseless loss that none who haven't experienced it could possibly imagine.

Late Saturday night, after spending hours watching the coverage on CNN, I turned off the TV and played Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings on the stereo and dedicated it in my mind to Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the rest of the victims of the Arizona shootings. I don't know the role music will play in helping to heal the souls of those immediately affected by what has happened in Arizona. But for now, the rest of us can only be grateful to have the genius of Mahler and Barber and countless other composers and artists who have heroically transformed senseless human suffering into food to nourish our world-weary souls.