Community//

Grief and Music are Universal: How I Used Songs to Heal

We have our words and music to help bond us in these tough times.

Over the course of my Junior and Senior years in high school, through to my Freshman and Sophomore year of college, I lost multiple friends and classmates. I’m from a small town, so each loss restructured an entire ecosystem of connections and relationships. 

First, it was a school bus accident. Then, a car accident. Two of them. Finally, a stabbing at a bar. 

Each funeral was so astoundingly different. The first, a catholic service. The second, a protestant. The third, a cremation. The fourth, non denominational, with a lot of confusion still in the air about exactly what had happened. 

It was after that third funeral that I quit smoking –– a habit picked up in small town USA by way of making friends. I will never forget walking out the side doors of the funeral home and into a massive close of smoke, where all my friends where lighting one after another in complete silence. 

The scene stirred something in me, and I took it as a sign. First, that I needed to never pick up a cigarette again (and I didn’t!), and second, that the silence could be filled with something other than smoke. 

And that’s when music took hold. 

Now, technically, I’m tone deaf. Seriously. Beyond my family just not being the musical kind –– at church, my grandfather used to tell me: “God doesn’t care how you sound. He gave you this voice! Don’t mind the others in the pew.” –– I had several ear-related problems growing up, from tubes, to infections, to a busted eardrum. Both nature and nurture have turned me out as tone incompetent as possible. 

And yet, I became determined to let music fill the silence. Back then, in 2007, my choices were poor, to say the least. 

In my neck of the woods, Texas country music mixed with UGK beats –– and that was about all anyone knew. I still remember the sad day Pimp C died. So many of my friends went to the funeral. We were that dedicated. 

Nonetheless, in the years since, I’ve developed a wide variety of playlists and sounds to fill the void. And these days, I use those playlists for more than just grief. 

  • They also help me turn the TV off and focus more on the present
  • They are the backdrop for thoughtful dinners with meaningful conversation with my wife
  • They help soothe me to sleep when anxiety creeps in 

I know that for so many people, silence is preferred when grieving. And that’s OK, too. Sometimes, the silence is necessary. But for me, and maybe for you, these songs have helped so much –– first for grieving (and giving up smoking!), and then for teaching my brain to listen more slowly to that which is around me, to turn off what is taking me away, and to find solace and peace in the moments of life that I know first-hand can so easily be taken away. 

Here are a few of my favorite songs for grieving, broken out by the times in which I most need them. 

1. EXPRESSING EMOTIONS.

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”

― Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare

According to Dr. Judith Orloff, after crying, our breathing, and heart rate decrease, and we enter into a calmer biological and emotional state. More interestingly, it was found that emotional tears shed hormones and other toxins which accumulate during stress. Studies also suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer and “feel-good” hormones.

So the good news is that crying can actually make you feel better! So, I’ve found it important to listen to music that matches my emotions. If I’m sad, I try crying to Candle in the Wind by Elton John or if I’m  angry, I play Break Stuff by Limp Bizket and scream out the lyrics. 

Here are a few good ones:

  • Wiz Khalifa ft. Charlie Puth – See You Again
  • James Taylor – Fire & Rain
  • Tracy Chapman – Fast Car
  • Maggie Rogers – Dog Years

2. MINDFUL DISTRACTION.

One thing I’ve learned is that grief doesn’t happen in stages. I wish! How much easier and more predictable would that be?! 

Instead, it is more cyclical. It pops its head up randomly, at airports or on long car drives. It’s unpredictable. And sometimes, I need mindful distraction not to avoid the feelings, but to embrace them –– and let them come, as well as let them go. 

Here are a few songs that help:

  • Bob Marley – Three Little Birds
  • Poolside – Esperar Pra Ver
  • Jack Johnson – Upside Down
  • Boombox – Showboat

3. CONNECTION & CELEBRATING LIFE.

Music can help so much with the loneliness and isolation feelings after loss. I don’t have any good songs for you in this one, but I do have a challenge and a task: go out and find those songs that you listened to together. Make a playlist right now of them, while they are still fresh on your mind.

I don’t have playlists of songs my friends and I used to listen to, but I do have burnt CDs that I keep at my moms house. They still have the Sharpie drawings and writings on them –– as well as the really bad Ashlee Simpson songs we were so obsessed with then.

4. MOTIVATION.

There will be dark days. Days you don’t want to get out of bed. And for those days, I’ve found that motivating songs are helpful for pulling me out of my mood and helping me face my day (though I’ll try to move all meetings and things out of the way. Sometimes, you just need the time and space!). 

  • Matisyahu – Sunshine
  • Can’t Hang – Bird River Grove
  • Kat Wright – The River
  • New Radicals – You Get What You Give

5. PEACE.

Anxiety and racing thoughts can come on so quickly, and be so overwhelming. On those days, I look to grief quotes to remember I’m not alone, as well as dial in to some of the songs below to help quiet the mind and find inner peace. 

  • M83 – Midnight Souls Still Remain
  • Ludovico Einaudi – Nuvole bianche
  • Ceilidh – Suaimhneas
  • Zen Music Garden – Ascension

Grief & Music are Universal 

Grieving is never easy. A piece of us is ripped away, never to be fully returned. So as we begin to heal our broken hearts, remember that there are others out there going through similar journeys, attempting to make sense of the insensible.

We have our words and music to help bond us in these tough times. 

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