Following the death of his son in 2015, the singer has used music, an online forum and now a new book to help himself and others come to terms with personal tragedy
Grief is a universal experience, but one which largely takes place inside our heads and out of public view. Yet in the last several years, Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave has become our unlikely guide for dealing with loss and learning to heal.
Cave has taken on the mantle of ambassador for the grieving process since the tragic death in 2015 of his 15-year-old son Arthur.
And he will chronicle his experience of coming to terms — or, more accurately, of not coming to terms — with unimaginable pain in a new book. It has the potential to be essential reading for those reckoning with the death of a loved one.
“A tribute to stillness,” is how publisher Canongate describes Faith, Hope & Carnage, to be published next year.
The book draws on 40 hours of conversations between the singer and Northern Ireland journalist Sean O’Hagan. These chart, in real time, the voyage Cave and his wife, fashion designer and former model Susie Bick, have been on following the loss of Arthur, who fell from a cliff near their home in Brighton after experimenting with LSD.
“This is a book of intimate and often surprising conversations in which Nick Cave talks honestly about his life, his music and the dramatic transformation of both wrought by personal tragedy,” said O’Hagan.
“It provides deep insight into the singular mind of one of the most original and challenging artists of our time — as well as exploring the complex dynamic between faith and doubt that underpins his work.”
That Cave should choose to publicly engage with his grief will be no surprise to those who have followed his career since 2015. Two years after Arthur’s death, he began The Red Hand Files, an online journal and newsletter in which he reaches out to fans and shares his feelings about life, the universe and everything else.
The Red Hand Files are named after one of Cave’s biggest hits, Red Right Hand. The song will be familiar to television viewers as the theme from Peaky Blinders. With its baroque atmosphere and biblical grandiosity, that series has riffed on the wild preacher persona Cave had cultivated prior to the death of his son.
A very different Cave steps out from behind the curtain on The Red Hand Files. “You can ask me anything. There will be no moderator,” he wrote shortly after beginning the journal. “This will be between you and me. Let’s see what happens. Much love, Nick.”
The Red Hand Files found its purpose as a forum for people who, as with Cave, were processing terrible loss. He has received some communications from fans of his music. Yet among the 50 to 100 messages popping into his inbox each day, many are from parents who have lost a child and discovered there is a lack of spaces in wider culture where they can grapple with their loss.
Cave wants to be there for these individuals: to be their sounding board and their wailing wall. And so he hopes to help with the process of healing — for him and for them.
“My son, Arthur, died and everything changed,” he wrote. “People began to send letters to my home address, letters of condolence, of course, but many were letters from people that essentially said: ‘This happened to me. I know what you are going through.’”
It soon became obvious to Cave that people were seeking out The Red Hand Files because there was nowhere else for them to go. Nowhere else where, as they processed their grief, they could feel understood and listened to.
“It was clear that people were finding some sort of personal salvation by articulating their own particular story for somebody else to hear. It felt to me that they had run out of people who were prepared to listen,” he wrote on the third anniversary of The Red Hand Files. “This idea had a profound impact on me — the remarkable curative power of the combined acts of telling and listening.”
Cave also poured these feelings into his remarkable October 2019 album, Ghosteen. It’s about Arthur and about what Arthur has left behind. Cave has revealed that Susie is visited by Arthur in her dreams. And Cave says he feels his presence daily.
He doesn’t believe in the paranormal and feels that these are ultimately just voices in his head, catching the echoes of where Arthur used to be. However, what Cave tries to communicate in Ghosteen, and in The Red Hand Files, is that there is solace and comfort in opening yourself to those feelings. In acknowledging the magical thinking for what it is and placing yourself at its centre.
“Emotional intelligence and awareness are advantageous qualities to possess when grief strikes,” says Tom Evans, a psychotherapist and grief counsellor in Midleton, Co Cork, who runs Self-Care online counselling nationwide.
“These are tools with which we begin to excavate this dark, desolate vastness. Cave has these qualities in spades. And he is a poet to boot.
“As a grief counsellor, I believe he charts this territory like no grief text book I have read. He gets personal and is soul-baringly sensitive.”
In becoming a public symbol for loss and renewal, Cave has done an immense service, says Evans. “Cave has taken inspiration from his journey through this darkness and made it even more powerful and accessible by putting it to music.
“He has not only woven his art into this journey, but he has taken part in a public conversation, with nothing off limits. Truth, though often painful, can provide powerful relief too.”
The message running through both Ghosteen and The Red Hand Files is that grief is not a pilgrimage from ‘a’ to ‘b’. It has a beginning, however there is no end. The world takes on a different hue when you lose someone. It changes. And so do you. There’s no going back.
“We have come to see that grief is not something you pass through, as there is no other side,” Cave wrote in May 2020, in response to letters from grieving parents.
“For us, grief became a way of life, an approach to living, where we learned to yield to the uncertainty of the world, whilst maintaining a stance of defiance to its indifference… Eventually, this awareness of life’s fragility led us back to the world, transformed.”