We have all undoubtedly experienced the deep lasting sensation of grief in one way or another. Whether through the loss of a childhood pet, and death of a grandparent, parent, close relative, or even a close friend. The searing, gut wrenching effect it leaves with us with is sure to stay for quite some time, arguably forever.
In 2015, indie artist Sufjan Steven released his album Carrie & Lowell, a dedication to his late mother, as a way to cope with his own personal grief, and use his platform to normalize the influence death has on us all. The sixth song on the track, “Fourth of July“, simulates a made up conversation between Sufjan and his mother before she lost her battle with stomach cancer. The song begins on the night of her death:
The evil it spread like a fever ahead It was night when you died, my firefly
The “evil” that spread both describes his mother’s uncontrollable cancer as well as his indignation towards the disease that he cannot stop, like a fever. Sufjan then compares his mother to a firefly, who died in the night, leaving him in utter darkness. The verse continues:
What could I have said to raise you from the dead? Oh could I be the sky on the Fourth of July?
As the night prolongs, feelings of desperation creep into his thoughts. He is left to question if he could have done anything to save his mother. And then he wishes he could bring back the light his mother left behind. He longs to brighten the sky as she once did his life, with fireworks, like the Fourth of July. The motif of light and darkness scattered across this song reflects the desperation of death and the simultaneous hope of life.
In later verses, the song’s voice becomes Sufjan’s mother speaking back to him:
Shall we look at the moon, my little loon Why do you cry? Make the most of your life, while it is rife While it is light
She knows his grief and comforts him with both words of assurance and alludes to the light he may have forgotten in his despair. The moon symbolizes hope, even in the dead of night. She assures him that though she is gone, he must continue, and make the most of it, while there is still “light” meaning the temporary vitality of his youth and the light of each day he is still alive. After another verse, the song ends with the repetition of:
We're all gonna die
And while this may come off as morbid, it is actually just a reminder that all our lives will end in the same way. Here Sufjan is affirming what grief has taught him: that life is short and must be taken care of, parents (even in Sufjan’s case in which his mother left him when he was young) are people we must learn to love and forgive, and seasons of depression are not permanent, for somewhere, there will always be light.
The poetic theme of this song describes an ugly, painful experience. Yet we can all learn from Sufjan’s testimony that it is okay the grieve, matter in fact it is good to grieve. It is also good to hope, and remember that however dark the night may seem, there is a dim flicker of hope somewhere beyond the cloud marred sky.
2 thoughts on “What Grief Looks Like, and Fireworks”
The duality of grief and hope that the song illustrates is really powerful. It reminds me of the famous poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”, by Dylan Thomas.
I have always thought that Stevens was a very interesting artist because I always notice that his music is beautifully painful. Like you said, this song is about him losing his mother to cancer, which is a depressing topic by itself, but his inclusion of her words to him and the brief positive moments that come from grief set him apart from other artists. I also love his song Chicago.