Grief is a woman with plenty to say. This shape-shifting step-sister of ours wasn't originally a part of the plan, but now she is coming with—no choice there. 

But did you know you also have the ability to shape your grief? It's true; however, first you must be willing to meet her where she lives. In this episode of Great Grief, Nnenna Freelon asks us to consider what happens if we stop running from our grief, sit down and listen to her for a change.

Listen to When Grief Speaks, the first episode of Season 1 Great Grief with Nnenna Freelon: "Wailing Women."

Subscribe and listen to all four episodes of the first season of Great Grief: "Wailing Women," available now wherever you listen to podcasts:

Episode Transcript:


Okay, let's see. Where do we begin? Where you enter and, of course, how you enter the
conversation really, really matters. I have to admit feeling a little giddy right now.

It's rare that someone asks me to share my perspective. Of course, I'm all up in the
room, so to speak. But folk don't really look me in the eye and you know, talk
to a sister, ask me, what's up G?, and wait for an answer.

Lots and lots of conversation about me. What's normal or not so normal when I'm seated at the table? Yeah, I'm in the room making noise, rearranging the furniture. You know, doing what I do. Almost always, folk get squirmy. Feel a little awkward. I guess I'm used to it. You know, not receiving invitations to hang out and just kick it.

Usually folk just suffer my presence. Avoid my gaze. Looking askance.

You'll see I like words—askance: To look upon with disapproval.

Or maybe, I don't know, maybe it's not disapproval, exactly. Maybe it's fear. Maybe everybody just feels afraid. Perhaps thinking that my mouth is wide enough to swallow them whole, which by the way it definitely is not. I don't know.

I don't know what folks are thinking:
That I'll go away if ignored or shrink into a manageable size. Something that can be placed neatly in the pocket of your life and left there safely in the dark along with loose change and stray bits of lint.

Or maybe they're thinking they can run or outrun me keeping me in their peripheral vision while sprinting.

It's an impossible race. And I have no legs or body and always at the finish line upon your arrival. Always.

Why? Because unlike you, I don't need legs. I am exactly and at all times where you are. Hovering, sitting on the sofa at your job, in your dreams. I'm like a shadow accompanist, except not flat and with a much bigger range of personality.

Since this is sort of an interview, my first exclusive, I want to say for the record, right off the bat that I'm horribly, horribly misunderstood. Truly.

I have my theories about why this is so. Some of them having to do with how uncomfortable it feels to be in rooms of discomfort.

Feelings, they be just like a river. Rivers, they're beautiful, powerful, destructive when they flood their banks but say what you will: The flow is the main characteristic of riverness. Always moving, becoming something different moment to moment.

Build a dam? You can if you want to. The energy, all the energy of the flow builds pressure, unbelievable force, damned up to the neck of. River, it likes to flow.

Anyway, it's people, not rivers, we're discussing here, I'm just saying.

Grief. Now you know that's not even my real name, right? That's what you call me but I mean you gotta know that's not even close. My real name is unspeakable, unsayable, impossible to even pronounce. Grief, don't say it. Grief, doesn't even sound good, does it? No one smiles when they say it.

Your lips curled, back of the tongue, throat pushing out the sound: Grief. There are histories, origin stories around the word Grief. The linguists spar and jab with each other over the evolution of the term, some insisting it's use stems from the early 13th century gravare, "to make heavy" and others note from the old French cléveille to "afflict burden or oppress." Do you see what I mean?

Affliction? Oppression, how, how, did we get here?
The root word guerra, meaning "heavy," is a point of its beginning they say.
Spawning a family of words from the Latin Gravis meaning "weighty." "Sad." "Heavy."

Oh the grief progeny, which include grievous, aggravate, aggravation, agrived, grave, gravity, gravitas, gravit. And then of course, there are all the spin-offs living in close orbit to mourning. Heartache, anguish, pain, despair, worry, melancholy sadness, glum, suffering, woe, gloom, regret, despondent—I could go on and on.

Oh, forgot about this one. Morose. You see what I mean? Do you see what I mean?

But these are modern words. 12th century, veritable language babies gathered round grief. I guess you can tell it's been a thorn in my side that given name, Grief.

No one can agree on a sturdy definition for it. I mean, what is grief?
Asking for a friend here. Even with the best minds, best attempts, they can't grab their heads around a good definition.

And why might that be you ask? I believe it's because we define grief as a noun.
A noun? Now there's your problem right there. Anybody experiencing grief knows it's totally a verb. It's action, alive, growing, developing, has seasonal allergies, all that.

There can even be periods of dormancy where it seems to have gone silent and then,
just as surely as spring, pops up. There she be all over again, griefing around,
ringing them bells and doing her thing in a new phase, a flow. Definitely more beingness than
it-ness. Say my name, say my name, say my name, call me what you will. Say my name, say hey, my name, I've been with you, I've been with you since until, been with you since until.
Not sure that makes sense, but I like it.

Oh, oh, oh, and can I mention, I'm really enjoying this chat! It's been a minute and getting a few things off my chest so to speak, which is to say express myself, as I do not have a chest—Well, it feels nice. Very, very nice. So I'm thanking you.

Now, there is a word—perhaps you've heard of it before? Guru. No?
I'm a world's traveler. Yes, many, many worlds. I cross space and time.
And though I do not recognize time as you do—You see, I do not own a watch, or any instrument that's designed to chop up the ever-now into little bits and pieces.

Anyway, in my travels, I encountered the word guru, a 5,000 year old Sanskrit word. This word lived in a language no longer spoken.

Guru. Doesn't it feel nice on the tongue? Guru. It means teacher or guide.
And it also came to have other meanings. Let us just rest right here for a minute. Guru.


Teach me. Teacher, teach. Teach me. Teacher, teach.
I want to be a believer. Teach me. Teacher, teach.
Teach me. Teacher, teach.
Teach me gently. Teacher, teach.
The scene and the unseen. My heart wants to know. Teach me, teach me. Teacher, teach.
I want to grow. Sometimes if you want to grow, you need a teacher.

Hmm. So out of all this Guru as teacher, then here come interest and trouble.
Trouble in mind. Oh yes, trouble in my eye.
Guru at some point came to mean heavy and at some other point was borrowed and applied to grief.

Words borrowed broken, traded on the ancient tongue. No wonder things have gotten so confusing.

Guru, one word holding both teacher and heaviness and burden.


♪ ♪

I got trouble, trouble in my soul.
I got trouble, trouble in my soul.
Ain't got a nickel in that dime.
Gonna keep on rocking
while till I leave all my troubles far behind.

♪ ♪


Yeah, somebody, somebody said I'm the one who invented the blues.
Long time ago someone sang: Nobody knows the trouble I see.
Nobody knows but Jesus.

This person, the one who first felt who first sang these words in the hushed quiet of a Louisiana plantation or under the trees in a North Carolina secret prayer meeting. Their names are not available to us. They are long, long gone to glory and dust.
The story of a people, their struggles, their humanity lives on. A breathing thing alive within the yearning plea.


♪ ♪
Sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down. Oh yeah there, Lord. ♪
Sometimes I'm leveled to the ground. Oh yes, Lord.
♪ ♪

The human urge to be seen for one suffering to be heard. Now that's real.
Real then and real right now.

If it be shut up or shut down, squelched by those in power well, then that human urge rises and flows. Sometimes, sometimes, sometimes. Oh yes, oh yes, into song.

Finding another root and flowing up and over and out of the experience sounding itself.
A record of that experience. Here, here is grief, transformational, becoming artifact of not only the personal, but the universal. Some call it sorrow song and some negro spiritual.
Genius flow is how I see it. Black genius flow given freely to the worlds.

Glory, hallelujah.
Ah, how can we begin to tease it all apart? Searching, searching for that which is hidden.

Maybe in renaming grief, reclaiming of the teacher, grew.
What else is possible? My favorite question.

I don't have answers, not any satisfying ones anyway. I do have lots and lots of questions.
And I always travel with a purse full.

Now, I've been told that the ones I pose trouble the waters. Super-sized and sharp-edged.
"What am I going to do now?" "How can I go on?" Now that's real. That's real, real.

These big questing thoughts ring the hell out of life itself. Reverberating, knocking over all the furniture, rearranging patterns, a hook and dot on everything you've known. And the stickiest ones? The porcupine of all questions. Why?


♪ ♪
Why, oh, why, oh, why, oh, why? Why like this? Why today? ♪
♪ Why, oh, why? ♪

♪ Did she go away? ♪
♪ ♪

Can you hear that? It's starting to rain.

Yeah, people don't like the rain either. Sometimes I wonder about that. How many times have you run trying to escape dodging this way and that holding paper or plastic bags over your heads, so as not to get wet, wishing you'd remember to bring your umbrella?

How many many times has thunder announced the coming forth of storm, of change? And you rushing around to get the clothes off the line before it begins, hurriedly covering your precious, precious things. Don't want them to get wet.

You call out to your children, "Hurry, hurry, hurry, hurry, come inside, it's gonna rain quickly.
You're gonna get so…"
And you… you get caught in a downpour.
Your hair drenched, curls in ringlets, round and round and round itself, shrinking as if frightened of it all.

Have you ever considered that a single drop of rain might have as its highest and best wish
to fall upon your face?
To abandon its cloud home and travel a most impossible distance, only to fling itself wildly against your brown cheek.
Your brown cheek, to melt in love in curiosity, in the curve of your soft belly, to taste your flavors, becoming one with you, each changing each other.

I am a raining, I am a raining of emotions, feelings, sensations, dreams, memories, all of it, shaped out of the raw materials of your lived experience.
Ordinary bits and pieces of your life fallen from a high shelf, now cracked and broken.
No, rising like vapor, no way, no how, everything within you insists that it not be.


♪ ♪
♪ Please, let it not, let it not be true ♪
♪ Beast, let my gaze find you ♪
♪ Peace, let me hold her hand on a summer's day ♪
♪ Once more ♪
♪ Please, let it not, let it not be true ♪
♪ Be true ♪
♪ Please, let it not be true ♪
♪ The rose has faded the water to the moon ♪
♪ ♪ Please, please, please let it not ♪
♪ Let it not be true ♪

♪ ♪

"We become what we love." Somebody said that. I don't remember who it was, but it feels like truth. Consider for a moment for raindrops desire to merge melt become one with you.
What might that feel like?

If your imagination can picture me, Grief—if you must—Guru, if you can.

Consider your beloved's life a banquet table, laden with sweet fruits of every variety, tempting dishes artfully prepared: savoury collard greens, potato salad, fresh peach cobbler. All of the spicy sweet and sour delicacies of life itself and every bit of it yours, a fabulous feast.

Imagine this table perfectly set, groaning under its extravagant weight. Delicious smells waiting for you to partake. It's not as if you're not hungry. You know you're hungry, starving in fact. There's nothing like this kind of empty.

But you hesitate, maybe saying to yourself, I want my life back, untouched by the scandal of grief, unscathed by impossible things that do happen after all, and without so much as a warning.

And so you wait.
Unsure if you can bear to take a seat and sup on sorrow.
Maybe you try, perhaps swallowing a crumb, or maybe you're afraid, thinking to yourself, "What if it sticks in my throat? What if I choke on it all?"
You wait inside your hunger feeling what you feel, and it's fine, baby, really, it's okay.

This thing is not a race.
The table is ever set and is always, always.
You know me. Sis ain't got no watch, no compass, no yardstick, no nothing.
Time is like a fairy tale, a story told around the campfire.
Each momentary arrival and departure, a flow in that big ol' river, moving, changing, growing, always becoming something new, something more.
Grab as much as you need.

Moment to moment, a grand parade, ever coming, ever coming, leaf and blade, all creation spinning round,
grand and glorious, a sound, grand and glorious, the sound.

I'd like to let you in on a little secret.
I'm not one to give advice, even on the rare occasions when I'm asked, but I will share this with you:


That's it. Imagination. There is your secret!

Being strong as I press my heavy body on you, patient, as I open all your doors marked
Private. Accepting me putting my fingers in your hair, sitting way too close and interrupting you in mid-sentence.

You? Cool? You cool?
You cool with my asking you to dance a new dance without you're knowing any other steps?
No, no. No, the real deal is imagination. It's a super power.

Seize what's hidden beneath the skin of sorrow.
That lies beyond the crumbs of loss at the banquet of life.

Scalawag knows that for many of us, our grief is simultaneously never news and the only news.
Listen to the latest season of Great Grief with Nnenna Freelon, available now on all podcast platforms.

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Episode 2 of 'Great Grief with Nnenna Freelon,' Season 1: Wailing Women.

No woman makes it through life without a sister. Through faith, family, and struggle, we inhabit a deep solidarity that allows us to hold one another close, even at the very end. Nnenna Freelon walks us through her journey of losing her sister, Debbie.

The Color of Grief

Photographer Justin Hardiman, a collaborator with Jasmine Williams and Sarah Jené's 'How We Get Over: We Grow On' project at the Mississippi Museum of Art, shares stunning portraits and excerpts from his audio-visual project, 'The Color of Grief.'

'Great Grief' finds a new home at Scalawag

Coming this September: The re-emergence of Nnenna Freelon's original podcast about loving greatly through grief.

Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon is partnering with Scalawag to bring our audiences three fresh seasons of Great Grief, her original podcast honoring the stories and songs of Black women who have faced grief and loss.

Nnenna Freelon, the host/creator of Great Grief, is a Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist, music educator, arts advocate, producer and arranger who has achieved international acclaim in both recording and live performance. Follow her latest updates at: