The Rev. Gloria Randolph knows grief intimately. Having spent years of her life in its crushing grip — first after her 21-year-old son Sean was murdered in 1989 and again after his younger brother, John, died in 2010 at age 32 — she is acutely aware of its awesome power. And not just to devastate.
As she discovered in the years after Sean’s death, it can also be a source of salvation.
The Grief Ministry Leader at Chicago’s Covenant United Church of Christ and a parent “support circle” facilitator through the Chicago organization Purpose Over Pain, Randolph has long drawn on her darkest days to guide countless people through theirs.
“My whole life changed in 13 days,” said one woman who attended Randolph’s grief sessions to WBBM Newsradio. “I didn’t think I would ever make it out of bed, the pain was so great … I’ve made a lot of progress. I don’t think I would still want to be here if it wasn’t for Reverend Gloria.”
High praise, indeed. But Randolph, a former Chicago Public Schools teacher, said she also benefits personally. Along with her deep religious faith, listening to other people’s stories and sharing her own has been a source of great healing.
That sentiment is part of a new song honoring the lives of her sons, as part of Notes for Peace, a program of the Negaunee Music Institute, the educational and community-engagement arm of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The lilting and emotionally upbeat “Love After Life” is based on conversations with Randolph and poignantly introduced by her daughter Candace Cater. It was written by Sara Lee and Rex Horan, teaching artists from the U.K.-based Irene Taylor Trust, which partners with the Negaunee Music Institute on these songwriting projects.
Based on interviews with Randolph about her sons, the lyrics were set to original music. An early stripped-down version was then played for Randolph and her daughter, who offered insights on content and tone. Finally, Randolph’s family (including her husband) attended a recording session in downtown Chicago, where they gave further feedback and witnessed the whole song come together. Randolph cried when she heard the finished product, and it’s easy to see why.
Sung by soprano Takesha Meshé Kizart-Thomas, “Life After Love” begins:
You were always making plans
A genuine, generous, thoughtful man
Focused on family, future and your faith
But plans can change and time moves on
One of its most profound lines, inspired by something Randolph said, is repeated at the end: “My purpose is greater than my pain. There’s no hurt, no anger. I just miss you.”
“I thought it was just genius that the creators of this song included so much and got it so right,” Randolph said. “The Notes for Peace project has had a very positive impact on my family. We love talking about Sean and John at family gatherings, and now we have their song as a welcome addition. We are eternally grateful for our newest heirloom that can be shared with their nieces and nephews who didn’t have the pleasure of knowing their amazing uncles.”
Jon Weber, the CSO’s director of school and family programs, said the songwriting process “was clearly a special and very meaningful opportunity for the Reverend Gloria and for her family” — one she never expected to have because her boys had been gone for so long.
“There was an intensely emotional moment we experienced together when sharing her song for the first time,” he said. “It was immensely gratifying for our songwriters to see how their music authentically represented her feelings and the treasured memories of her sons.”
Describing her as someone with tremendous “generosity of spirit,” Weber said Randolph “summarized the power and impact of the project better than any of us could.”
“I love being able to play my sons’ song whenever I have thoughts and memories of them on special days and occasions,” Randolph said. That includes her annual My 2 Sons: John/Sean Memorial Scholarship Awards gala at which supporters and donors of the scholarship will now be able to “share in the joy of hearing this wonderful song that the CSO has created.”
“They’re still alive in us,” she said of her beloved boys. “Their legacies live on through what we do.”