Painting smiles daily: Dealing with grief while being a full-time music student

Featured Image: Stefany Andrade


On the stage and facing glaring back at me doesn’t feel the same. The applause isn’t quite as fulfilling, the sounds aren’t quite sitting correctly and all I can think about is them. Picturing their faces in the audience instead of the unfamiliar faces of my peers feels more comfortable. A line of four very important members that only I have the ability to picture perfectly, or at least, to the best of my ability. My voice itself when I sing on stage is more shaken. Frustration is leaking out when I perform and I am left with circling questions, am I still good at singing? Am I doing a satisfying job at this? Their smiles responding when I sing used to fuel my adrenaline for the next performance. 

It is a little more empty now. 

From 2017 to 2020, my mum and I have been grieving the loss of my grandparents (her parents), uncle Jack (her brother), and my dad. Going to university with that baggage was a move I was willing to try. I suppose I thought that it may shift the grief, give me a few hours off each day while speaking to others my age. It seems the clouds follow me everywhere I go. I used to fight it and question why I can’t have a moment off of this constant feeling, but now, I accept it and aim to channel it through my creative practice. Initially, making friends and socialising at light-hearted events and parties felt like the ideal step to finding balance during this process. Although a part of me wanted to throw myself into it, the underlying voice was telling me to go and be with mum. Integrating myself during grief wasn’t going to be an easy transition, especially as I still live with mum in our flat based in Kings Cross. An area that provides access to so many places. People transition and travel constantly, yet I want to stay home. 

Sometimes, I would and still do, people-watch in King’s Cross. As a writer, outside of university hours, I give myself permission to create stories associated with the people passing by. Grieving can be an isolating process, but framing out where somebody is going and what they may be feeling, at least, provides some temporary comfort. The woman walking by with her suitcase with her initials planted on the exterior in a bold font may be going to visit a family member, or maybe she’s getting ready to live a hot girl summer in Ibiza. Writing alone has presented too many gateways for expression, without the performance on stage. I want to find the love for performing again, but trying away or writing pen to paper is an outlet that I can do without the external pressure of “looking good on stage”… 

The social invitation 

Putting dates in the diary and booking with the link in their bio. Yes, I will be there. I seem to say that line on repeat when my peers have gigs coming up. It feels like a short fix, and I want to go. When the day is around the corner, I can’t seem to bring myself to do it. It’s not hard, for some, and maybe I could just go. Personally, I am considering the wave of grief and how it will pan out over the next few days. When there is a night of high, there will be an even bigger dip in the day after. I ask myself, is it worth it? The smoking area seems the base for all the small talk social interactions. “Can I borrow your lighter” and “ What modules are you taking” are familiar phrases that feel safe. I think that’s why I am there so often. There’s no threat of feeling high or low, but somewhere comfortably in the middle. 

Creating discipline with grief 

Coping mechanisms are an ongoing search. I could wait on the list for therapy, or I could take matters into my own hands. I could find a new hobby, or in recent years, I studied psychodynamic therapy. That way, I was kind of a therapist myself, while working towards being an actual therapist. I’m not sure how healthy each practice is. It is constant trial and error. It seems more accessible in recent months, talking with mum about the people we have lost. There was a time when talking about them would provoke memories of their traumatising last days. One was ready to talk, while the other was. You may consider grieving with another person as a joint process, yet it remains isolating. We are trying to get on the same page, but with contrasting schedules and emotional differences, we are still working on it. 

I found that waking up early, giving up alcohol and smoking was the discipline that I needed. I can’t remember the last time that I slept with ease and woke up with a satisfying stretch. Everything remains uncomfortable, but structure paints a picture that I am still in control. Every working day, I leave the house and smile, a plastered smile. Sometimes it’s genuine and capturing moments of happiness feels natural, and other times, like many others, that plastered smile is stapled on until the day is done. It is an art form in its own right, the performance of going out each day and portraying a measured version of yourself, but the bags under your eyes can’t seem to be painted over. 

Sometimes people say “Are you okay?” — why does that question open up multiple tabs in my mind? I could be honest or say, “I am good, how are you?” Saying I’m fine has so many connotations to it that it encourages even more questions. After the pandemic, the art of performing okay doesn’t seem quite so pressuring. People are more open to a justified mental health day off. 

Finding balance and remembering

Currently, I am in my second year at university and while performances are required, I am finding ways to love it, just like I did when I was a child. Never burdened with numbers and goals in the shape of figures, singing for the sake of singing because I enjoyed it. Constantly chasing ways to cope with grief, I now see, was just another way of running away from the process until I felt ready. There is nothing wrong with running for a little bit and maybe in parts of the day, it is needed. Writing and music will always be an ongoing art form that allows us to remember the people we have lost in a personalised way. I think that is why sharing for the sake of a music degree feels too fragile. 

Mum and I have naturally found our way to talking about them in extremely recent months, days even. A short drive into London by the South Bank or doing a food shop, invite so many warm memories. It’s like grief in transit. We used to do our weekly food shop with my grandma and the South Bank holds so many memories of her and her brother Jack. Working towards being on the same page, while aiming to live in the present, is a tiring process. The highs and lows of it may not also make me an accessible, fun person to be around at University, but maybe I will just “go to one of their gigs” without contemplating it so critically. Something I am still working on, but without any immediate expectation. 

In memory of: 

Greta Gold 

Ciral Hoser 

Jack Hoser 

Motti Rubin

Milli-Rose Rubin

2 thoughts on “Painting smiles daily: Dealing with grief while being a full-time music student

  1. A very intimate and personal piece , my sincerest condolences.
    Sometimes we wear many masks and are hearts well, they bare the marks.

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