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Monday, January 16, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: How to Handle Grief

This will be a different kind of Monday Morning post, because this is a different Monday for many of us in the Austin Symphony Orchestra. On December 27, 2011, the symphony’s members lost a valuable colleague when Jennifer Bourianoff died in the hospital from a viral pneumonia infection that seemed to spring up overnight. Although our colleague had been in poor health in the past year, she continued to fulfill her symphony responsibilities as best she could while she battled her health issues.

This past weekend the symphony honored Jennifer, a valuable member of the first violin section and Assistant Concertmaster, by dedicating the subscription series concerts to her memory. As the symphony members and conductor Peter Bay prepared for the weekend’s performances, we wrestled with how to handle our individual emotions and feelings about the situation. Rehearsals were subdued. Many musicians expressed themselves through conversations, story-telling, and recalled memories. Others were more introspective and quiet.

Almost everyone found something to “grinch” about in a small way, a phenomenon I refer to as “kicking the dog.” Most of the musicians handled the rehearsals just fine, but there were pockets of time when folks seemed a mite more irritable about something trivial than the situation required. I thought this was one example of how people handled their grief. Things were not normal. Things would never be the same. We continued to play our instruments and make music together, but there was a rift in the fabric of who and what our symphony was. As hard as we all worked to make our final gift to Jennifer and her family as beautiful and flawless as we could, we still struggled ourselves with having to work around the hole in our hearts and in our membership.

As I watched these small occurrences of kicking the dog, I thought about what would be a good way to handle grief and mourning. The answer will be different for everyone, but I made some observations of the types of things that people found helpful in our situation.


Basically, dissociation is a defense mechanism. We have probably all used this technique at some point when we “zone out” or daydream while performing an activity. Many of us can probably recall a time or two when we drove somewhere and have no recollection of the drive because we were on autopilot. I have used this technique to focus or “tunnel in” on something I am doing, such as writing a lengthy paper, running a marathon, or surviving a difficult recital performance.

I have also used this dissociation technique when I am faced with grief in great proportions. As a performing musician, I learnt from an early age that “the show must go on.” This old saw refers to the fact that musicians cannot really afford to take a night off. We have to dig deep on those days when we do not quite feel up to snuff. When faced with deep grief, I hypnotize myself to tune out those thoughts while I get the task done. I get into my “work mode.” And so I used this technique to survive this past week, as I sat behind Jennifer’s empty chair, which had been draped with white satin and decorated with a large bouquet of flowers.

Today, however, there is no longer a need to use this technique, and the dissociation walls have crumbled. I am now turning to the second useful technique for handling grief.


I spoke with a therapist years ago about why therapists encourage the expression of grief through tears and crying. The therapist explained that tears were nature’s way to heal the body. Although we need spiritual and emotional healing, tears are a physical expression of that intangible healing. So rather than hold the tears back, the therapist suggested that it would be better to let the tears flow, and the more tears that flowed over time, the closer the person would come to achieving ultimate emotional healing. Today I am accepting the catharsis that comes from using this technique, as have many of Jennifer’s friends and colleagues as well as her family.


Years ago I lost a very important pet, my black lab mix Zubin (yes, named after Zubin Mehta as suggested by a conductor friend). This was my first dog as an adult, and I felt as if he was my best friend, my child, and my sweetheart, all rolled into one package. We took trips together. We played together. I taught him so many tricks. We had so many memories, so that when he passed away, I was “heart sick.” I came to the conclusion that I was hanging on to my memories with my grief because I was afraid that I would lose the fresh crispness of my memories; I feared that my stories and memories would fade with the healing of time. I could not bear the thought of forgetting all that my sweet fellow had been to me, and so my thoughts were making my heart sick.

I bought a pretty little journal and spent an evening writing in it until I could think of nothing more to tell about my darling boy. I wrote about all the tricks my dog performed, all the funny stories I could recall, and my feelings of loss now that my beloved pet was gone. I drank a lovely bottle of wine during my writing event, as I recall, and turned it into my small celebration of my love for my sweet dog.

After I finished, I closed the book and put it on the bookshelf. Every once in a while I would feel drawn to pull the little book off the shelf and read what I wrote that night. These feelings seemed to occur on or about the anniversary date of my pet’s death. (I find it interesting that our mind and spirit revisit these feelings on a cyclical basis). Once I finished writing my little book of memories, my grief subsided and I was able to move on past it, in spite of my loss. Because I had taken the time to write my way through my grief, I now had a permanent record of my beloved dog, and I no longer needed to fear that I would forget him. He would always be a permanent part of me through my writing. Jennifer has also been a big part of my daily morning pages entries in the past few weeks as I write my way through my memories.

Instead of sending a sympathy card, our symphony members opted to write in a small journal instead, as suggested by our musician’s committee chairman. Some members wrote personal letters to Jennifer. Others wrote stories and memories to share with Jennifer’s family. People glued pictures of Jennifer on the pages. We used the journal as a special place to pour out the words that best reflected everyone’s individual emotional needs. We remembered our Jennifer in unique ways, as each person who wrote in the book found their own special way to share our individual and collective connections with Jennifer on the journal pages. I am sure the book will be a treasure to Jennifer’s family in the future.


Every person we meet makes a valuable contribution to our lives in some way and on some level. We should celebrate that connection, no matter how brief or momentary, how complicated or complex. As with all performing musicians, each of us connect and relate with each other on a sliding scale of intimacy depending on the type of performance collaboration we are called on to make together. No matter whether we were very close or just the briefest of acquaintances, we have made a connection together. That small connection — that thread in the fabric of life — ought to be acknowledged, respected, and honored.

The symphony celebrated our connections with our colleague of over twenty years through a series of performances. Other members celebrated through special dedicated performances in the community or as part of the funeral events. Other members bought flowers or sent cards to the family. Still others may visit the grave site or schedule an intimate gathering of friends to celebrate that Jennifer touched our lives in a special way.

I noted with interest that in these past two weeks, there were different combinations of people grouping together and making new connections or rebuilding former connections that had been lost. Death has the unique ability to tenderize the heart in a way that nothing else other than a deep religious faith can. Jennifer's death softened the hearts of many of our symphony members in a way that drew us closer to one another as we shared our mutual grief over this new entry in our organization's history.

All of these different expressions of celebration help us to individually honor the value and worth of the person whose memory we celebrate. Just as the ancients of the bible erected pillars or altars to commemorate a place where a special event occurred, so does our individual acts of celebration remind us of the importance of the person who touched each of us in a special way.


Finally, I offer the technique of acceptance. When we accept something, we no longer fight to change circumstances. We no longer express disbelief or shock that this tragedy has occurred. We no longer shake our fists in the air or our heads at the ground. We sit quietly as the momentous experience wraps itself around us, and we accept that “it is what it is.” Once we can do that, we can begin to face the next stage our life holds for us.

Let me remind you that everyone experiences and survives grief and mourning in different ways and over differing periods of time. While you may have reached this stage of acceptance, there may be others who still struggle to break the surface of the emotional pain and breathe air again. Look around to see if there is someone who needs help. Helping others to process their grief may be just the thing to help you to handle yours.

There is no one way to handle grief, and many people use many different ways to wrap their minds around sad events. Ultimately, time will pass, and the grief will lessen. We will not forget the person we lost, nor should we try to do so. Everyone comes into our lives for a purpose and a season. Some stay in our lives longer than others, and some touch us in very special, close ways.

I will miss you, Jennifer. You were a part of my life in many ways over the past two decades. I have many memories and stories of times we shared together, on and off stage. Thank you for the gift of yourself that you gave to all of us, and thank you for the gift of your music.

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This is the middle of the month checklist:
  • Have you received all of your tuition payments for the current month? If not, make a list of who owes what money, and make one or two calls per day to remind your students' parents to bring the payments up to date.
  • Is your studio or teaching space straightened up and clean? Take a few minutes at the beginning and end of each teaching day this week and put things away, straighten up teaching materials, and clean the bathroom.
  • Do you have the schedule for the next week or two laid out? If not, take the 5-10 minutes to do that. Then look through your calendar and determine when you will practice or devote time to your other goals.
  • Have you set up a system to catch your receipts and records to be used in filing your 2012 taxes? Take a few moments to set up such a system now. 


  1. That is so beautifully written Paula. I too have a friend that died suddenly two days after Christmas. It was such a shock for so many and of course her family. I love your journaling idea. Thanks for sharing this.

    PS, I am playing my violin again since Jan 2 and think of you often :)


  2. Thank you for sharing this. I am in WI and miss Jen. I am still in denial she's moved on, but know she fought a battle and deserved to be with angels like herself. What a blessing to know her friends and family are honoring her memory :) Debby Kiersten

    Jen taught my daughter as a child and she is now getting ready to teach her daughter...Thank you Jen.

  3. Beautiful post Paula. Its interesting, I knew Jennifer more on a personal level than a professional one, although I am a gigging musician myself- and the thing that brought me to her was actually my own grief, from losing my baby who was stillborn. Jennifer taught me a lot about my feelings and myself, most importantly she supported my expression of grief, specifically my openness and raw emotions. I'll miss her wisdom. <3

  4. Thanks, Sonii! Keep up the violin playing! I think of you often whenever I pass you street.

    Thanks Debby and Annette for sharing your thoughts and feelings. Jennifer was a special person, and we will miss her.