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Six Ways Music Helps with Grief

Read Time: 4 minutes
Heather Fellows, SCMT, MT-BC

Heather Fellows, SCMT, MT-BC
Heather Fellows, SCMT, MT-BC

The holidays have always been my favorite time of year. I have warm memories of decorating the Christmas tree with the hodge-podge mix of ornaments my brother and I made in elementary school, family dinner at grandma’s house, wrapping gifts and fluffing the bow just the way my mom taught me to do. The first few bars of a Johnny Mathis Christmas song will always take me back to that time. Even now that these loved ones have gone, music still has a way of connecting me to the memories and traditions of my past.

After a loss, it can be difficult to balance “moving on” with grief. We create new traditions and care for the responsibilities of daily life during the holidays, but those strong memories and deep feelings do arise, welcome or not. Music can be used as a tool for coping with grief and loss. It can help us process those feelings and move toward a place of acceptance.

Here are six ways music can help.

1. Music provides a safe space to feel the emotions of loss

Songs have a beginning, a middle, and an end, so they provide a natural contained space for feeling emotions. Sometimes knowing you have three minutes until the song ends is a comfort.

  • Pick a song and listen, cry, yell, or do whatever you need to do, and know that in about three minutes, the song will be over.

2. Music gives us a way to express our big emotions

Music affects our minds and bodies in a powerful way. When we listen to music that moves us, it’s hard to avoid our feelings. This can be a good thing.

  • Do you love to sing? Do you play an instrument? Play along! Let it out! Even shower singing, car karaoke, air guitar, and desk drumming help us to express ourselves and release emotional stress.
  • Do you love to write? Write a new verse to a meaningful song. Make it funny or make it a serious tribute to your loved one. Even if you never perform your work of art, just the act of creating it can make a difference.
  • Move! Put on your favorite music and dance, walk, run, or work out. Moving your body connects your heart and mind and releases happy endorphins.

3. Music calms the body and mind

The emotions that arise when dealing with grief and loss are strong. They can leave us feeling upset, frustrated, anxious, and lonely. In times like these, we may need a little extra help to regulate that emotion and calm our senses.

  • Start with the music that validates your emotional state. If your heart is beating fast, start with something fast. Eventually get to slow-paced, calmer music to help decrease your heart rate and slow those body rhythms.
  • End with something soothing, possibly even meditative, that will help you be more mindful, grounded, and calm. This can happen over a few minutes or several songs. Look for apps that offer soundscapes and meditations along with music.

4. Music helps us remember who we are

When we have lost a loved one, sometimes it shifts our sense of identity. We used to fill the role of parent, child, sibling, or friend, and now, that role looks different.

  • Find the music that you identify with—something that makes you say, “Yes! That’s me!” Take time to listen, feel, remember, and respond.
  • Listen to or create music that connects you to your spiritual roots and reminds you of your sense of self and purpose.

5. Music connects us with other people

It’s important not to isolate. You’re going through a lot, and it’s harder to heal when you’re alone. This can be tricky with COVID-19 precautions in place, but even in a pandemic, music can bring us together.

  • Pull out your holiday favorites and get the people in your household to listen, sing, or dance along with you.
  • Make music with others online, whether it’s through a karaoke page on social media, a zoom call with friends, an online live sing-along, or a virtual choir.

6. Music helps us honor the memory of our loved ones

It connects us with memory. Remembering special times with our loved one is an important part of healing.

  • Listen to the music that reminds you of your loved one.
  • Create a playlist of songs to use for a video montage that tells the story of your loved one’s life.

The music therapists at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) use live music to help HCI patients and caregivers take their minds off of cancer, share emotions, and ease symptoms. Contact us at 801-587-4585 if you have questions or would like to ask about personal inpatient visits. Learn more about HCI’s creative arts programs that help patients and caregivers cope with cancer.

Cancer touches all of us.