Music and Emotion: How Songs Help Us Grieve and Heal

By Melissa Blake 07/09/19

Music can express how we feel when our grief renders us speechless.

Woman with headphones, listening to music, emotional reaction
Music has the power to begin to heal our soul. ID 143242070 © Yakiv Korol |

After my father’s death from suicide 16 years ago, I was always looking for signs—the flickering of a lightbulb, a bird flying overhead, anything that would let me know he was still with me. But in all those years, there was just an empty feeling, a giant black hole where those signs should be. 

Then, a couple years ago, on the way home from lunch on my birthday, I heard Rod Stewart's “Forever Young” on the radio, and I knew. I just knew it. That was the message from my father.

Before and After

Like many people who have lost loved ones to suicide, I tend to view my life in terms of Before and After; there was my life before he died and then there was my life after he died. I also tend to categorize music in much the same way. There are the songs that evoke the memories of my childhood, like the oldies from the ‘60s and ‘70s that we listened to on family car trips. I can’t listen to Simon & Garfunkel or Gordon Lightfoot without memories flooding back –like when my father introduced my sister and me to his record collection. We played those records for hours until we had all the words memorized.

Then there are also the songs that remind me of the dark days and months just after he died. A month before his death, I bought Norah Jones’ debut album on a whim and it sort of became the soundtrack of his death. My mother and I listened to it constantly, so every time I hear “Come Away with Me” I’m immediately transported back to that time. Suddenly I’m that scared, confused 21-year-old who can’t believe she’ll never see her father again.

These songs make me so sad, and yet I can’t stop listening. It’s almost like I’m drawn to the pain that those songs evoke, as if listening to them will somehow help me continue to process my grief.

How Music and Grief Are Processed in the Brain

As it turns out, there’s some validity in my yearning to listen to these songs. Listening to music actually lights up the brain’s visual cortex, which processes visual information and stores important memories.

“Music has been found to have a nostalgic effect, allowing individuals to recall memories, feelings and emotions from the past, so as an individual listens to music, they will start associating it with memories and feelings,” says Aaron Sternlicht, a New York-based psychotherapist. “Musical nostalgia can be helpful in the grieving process to help resolve emotions that a grieving individual may have previously been suppressing.”

After that birthday message, I started listening to "Forever Young" on repeat. I listened to it when I was writing. I listened to it when I was responding to email. I even listened to it when I was just surfing the web on a random Sunday afternoon. And then I heard it again one morning in March as I was browsing the aisles of Walgreens. At first, it felt completely random and I didn’t think much of it. Then I started putting the pieces together: Shopping together was one of our favorite things to do together, and it was March, the month in which my father died. The coincidences seemed too serendipitous, albeit bittersweet, and the words of the song just cut me like a knife.

It felt like a message from him, filled with all the things he wanted to tell me. I was relatively young when he died, and there is so much we missed, so many conversations we never got to have, so much life advice he never got to give me. 

For so long, I’d thought about all the things I’d say to him if I had the chance, but I never gave much thought to all the things he might want to tell me. There’s just so much I want to chat with him about — so many questions about life and what to do and hoping he’d be proud of me. Hearing the lyrics, I pictured my father giving me all sorts of advice, just like he used to. He was always fond of telling stories and imparting wisdom, and I miss his presence so much, looking over my shoulder and encouraging me onward. He was the ultimate cheerleader.

It's Not Just Me

The more I thought about the powerful connection between music and grief, the more I wondered if others felt the same way I did. Did music also make them feel close to their loved ones? Did it help them in their own grieving process? And what is it about certain songs, albums, and artists that connect us to loved ones we've lost?

To get some answers, I opened up the conversation on Twitter and Facebook. Before long, the stories started pouring in, full of love and memories. People were incredibly open and willing to share their stories as a way to honor their loved ones while at the same time acknowledging their grief. Here’s a sampling of some of the powerful experiences they shared with me:

When I was in high school, my best friend and I made the world’s stupidest music video (with my parent’s massive camcorder) to Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated.” She tragically died of a bad reaction to pain killers/anti-depressants (we never quite got a clear explanation) about eight years ago. Every time I hear that song, I laugh thinking of that ridiculous day, but also want to cry.Catherine Smith, Philadelphia

My grandpa was a Johnny Cash lookalike. He would even be hired to do impersonations at conferences! Cash is one of my favorite artists because he reminds me of my grandpa (whose name was actually JC, haha!) Last year I went to the Johnny Cash Museum for the first time and cried when I walked in—it was like seeing his face everywhere.Syd Wachs, New Zealand

Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” reminds me of my dad, who passed away in September. That was his favorite song. The song has definitely taken on new meaning since his death.Melissa Cronin, Vermont

When my grandfather died (quite a bit ago), I listened only to country music for about a month straight during my grieving period, as country was his favorite genre. I never listened to country before then, and I can only think of him now when I listen.Isabelle Lichtenstein, Boston

When I was 16, my beloved Cairn terrier was attacked and killed by another dog. I can't stop crying whenever I hear "Somewhere over the Rainbow" because Toto in the Wizard of Oz is played by a Cairn.Julia Métraux, New York

My grandparents, especially my grandmother, loved Elvis, so I walked down the aisle to an Elvis song and it really helped me feel like they were there. —​​​​​​​Abbie Mood, Colorado

[My mom] died three days before my 32nd birthday. I'd always wanted to take her to Hawaii because she'd always wanted to go and she'd never been anywhere. During my second trip traveling alone in 2012, I was standing in a McDonald's restroom and heard “I Hope You Dance.” I'd never listened to the lyrics before, but I felt she'd sent me a long-distance dedication, Casey Kasem-style. I started bawling. —​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Miranda Miller, Cleveland

My Dad's Message to Me

Just like Miller, I like to think that the words in “Forever Young” are a message from my father. My favorite line is: 

But whatever road you choose, I'm right behind you win or lose.

What a comforting, gentle reminder from him. Just hearing those words makes me feel like I’m still close to him, as if there’s part of him still here with me, right behind me, always, just like the song says.

Music can be a comfort when everything around us is confusing. Music has the power to begin to heal our soul, even if only a little bit at a time. And, music can express how we feel when our grief renders us speechless, says psychotherapist Ana Jovanovic.

“It can help us cry, verbalize our feelings and also, feel connected to others,” she says. “When you’re listening to music, you may be able to better recall some of the most significant moments in the life you’ve shared. It’s a piece of experience that helps us stay connected to a memory of a person, even when they’re gone.”

What songs are meaningful to you and why? Let us know in the comments.

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Melissa Blake is a freelance writer and blogger from Illinois. She covers disability rights, relationships and family life, pop culture and women's issues and has written for The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, Harper's Bazaar, Good Housekeeping and Glamour, among others. Read her blog, So About What I Said, and follow her on Twitter.