Jim and I loved the song “Harvest Moon” by Neil Young.
Two weeks before he died, we held each other tight while we slow-danced around our living room. The moon was bright in the sky on that mid-October night and we turned off the lamps. Soft moonlight shimmered through the windows. With his arms around me, he promised he would sing the lyrics to me when we were too old to dance. Whenever I hear this song, I think of it as Jim’s way of sending his love.
“Because I’m still in love with you, I want to see you dance again…”
When a loved one leaves us, there are always songs that will transport us back to a loving moment, as if music is recording our lives. Songwriters create the most moving music and lyrics during their own transitional times, and in doing so, their creations help us make sense of our myriad of emotions. One song can offer us a healing we need at just the right moment. Once a song travels through the airwaves, the music becomes a personal and also shared human experience.
Songs we shared with loved ones who have passed are ways we stay connected to them. I’m still surprised and a bit mystified when I think of our wedding song, the one sung at the church, not the reception. The priest wasn’t thrilled about our choice of “One Hand, One Heart”*, but we persisted and he allowed it.
“Now it begins, now we start.
One hand, one heart; Even death won’t part us now.”
When he died in my arms, I thought of these lyrics and they spoke to me in a mystical way. Why were we so intent on this song? I don’t remember, I just know we loved the message of it, never dreaming he would die only a few years later. But—love does not die.
*From West Side Story, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Singing and Death: Why Music and Grief Go Hand in Hand
This article – Singing and Death, Why Music and Grief go Hand in Hand, shows us how music helps us share grief and build community. In the aftermath of the June terrorist attack in Manchester, musicians gathered in St. Ann’s Square and ended a minute’s silence to honor the deceased with a spontaneous rendition of Don’t Look Back in Anger” by the homegrown rock band Oasis. When grief renders words inadequate, music can give a voice to overwhelming visceral emotion.
Blog writer Marissa Abruzzini’s offers us so much wisdom in this article Reveling in Sadness: “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall”.
“When you’ve lost someone close, or life hits you particularly hard, it’s easy to fall in love with a song like this. What Fitzgerald’s rendition of this soulful ballad ‘A Little Rain Must Fall’ tells us is that it’s alright to dive down deep into your pain for a while and to truly let yourself feel the hurt.”
Music’s Mystical Connection
In this riveting TEDTalk – Between Music and Medicine Robert Gupta proves to us “the beauty of music has the ability to speak where words fail”. Robert Gupta is a violinist who has a passionate parallel interest in neurobiology and mental health issues.
Late stage Alzheimer’s patients who could not recognize their families could pick out Chopin out of a compilation of music, and stroke victims who could not speak could sing lyrics to a song they knew! Music was able to rewire the brains of patients to compensate for brain damage!
Music and Healing – Certified Music Therapists
This article from Harvard University, How Music Can Help You Heal discusses how music therapy can calm anxiety, ease pain and provide a pleasant diversion during chemotherapy or a hospital stay. Certified Music Therapists are usually accomplished musicians using their talents to heal!
Make a Grief Play List – It’s Healing!
Writer Jess Fowler wrote a beautiful blog after her father died, The Role of Music in the Grief Process, because she had read countless articles about the best songs to play during funeral, but rarely had seen anyone compile a list of songs to go back to after a funeral is over.
I love the idea of a grief playlist. I wish I’d known about this when Jim died. I had an informal one, songs I played often while I cried. I found it cathartic and connecting. “Harvest Moon”, of course. “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel: days pass and this emptiness fills my heart; “Time and Time Again” by The Counting Crows: so when you coming home sweet angel; and many others where I felt the lyrics connected us to each other, a continuing bond of our love.
“There are times when I just need to hit pause on my life and let myself grieve for my father. And it is at that precise time that I need to hit the play button. I need to hear a song that will help me open the door into my emotions.”
– Jess Fowler
This wonderful BBC article takes an emotional and scientific look at music and memory – Why does music evoke memories?
This is a fascinating exploration of what happens in our brains when music carries us away.The artist Poe released her self-produced album “Haunted” in 2000. The album is a tribute to her deceased father and songs feature his recorded voice on most tracks, as if they are continuing their conversation and her grief in the lyrics: “If you were here I know that you would truly be amazing at what’s become of what you made.” Listen to her beautiful title track, Haunted.
Artist Poe‘s ‘Haunted’, released in 2000.
After Jim died, I would walk for miles listening to hard, pounding rock music – I chose a playlist for my long outdoor walks, music to block out my emotions – The Cult, Guns and Roses and Led Zeppelin, music I knew Jim would never have chosen. Those songs kept me moving and gave me balance between falling apart and moving forward. When listening on those long walks, I often lost my sense of time and place.
Author John O’Donohue explains our experiences with time and music in his wonderful book: Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom.
I share his beautiful writing frequently –
“. . .one of the most beautiful gifts that humans have brought to the earth is music. In great music, the ancient longing of the earth finds a voice . . . Music ministers to the silence and solitude of nature; it is one of the most powerful, immediate, and intimate of sensuous experiences. Music is, perhaps, the art form that brings us closest to the eternal because it changes immediately and irreversibly the way we experience time.
– John O’Donohue
When we are listening to beautiful music, we enter into the eternal dimension of time. Transitory, broken linear time fades away, and we come into the circle of belonging within the eternal. The Irish writer Sean O’Faolain said, “In the presence of great music we have no alternative but to live nobly.”
Put those headphones on, turn up the radio and make a play list to honor someone you love – music is there for you, to enhance every memory and connect you with the eternal. And it’s a beautiful way to honor and remember those who are no longer with us…
I leave you with this quote:
Debbie Augenthaler, LMHC, NCC, is an author and psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, where she specializes in trauma, grief and loss. Her award-winning book, You Are Not Alone: A Heartfelt Guide for Grief, Healing, and Hope combines her personal story of devastating loss with practical insights and simple suggestions for healing. Join her Facebook community, Grief to Gratitude, and follow her on Instagram.