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Illustration Elizabeth Henson

The music that helped me through the death of a loved one

People who’ve suffered a loss tell us about the music that helped make the grieving process a little bit easier

In the months following the death of a loved one, grief bleeds into every facet of your life. It shapes how you see the world and lingers over all of your interactions – if you’re not thinking about it, chances are the person you are with is. Music gets wrapped up into all of this in one way or another – perhaps an artist reminds you of the person you lost, or, if you’re lucky, something in a song touches upon a feeling that you hadn’t quite come to terms with, and makes the grieving process a little bit easier.

When my father passed away unexpectedly in 2011, I pushed the reality of the situation out of my head without realising it. Despite having a strong set of and friends and family who were always there to talk, I didn’t tend to want to broach the subject. There was a point, a few months down the line, where the only time I found myself thinking about his death was while listening to The Antlers’ 2009 album Hospice. The album was written, in Bon Iver-esque isolation, by songwriter Peter Silberman after a painful break-up. It speaks of heartbreak through the grim allegory of a hospice worker caring for a terminally ill patient.

The album is dotted with death imagery: a heart monitor beats for the last time, dirt is shoveled onto a grave. But the the penultimate track, “Wake”, stood out most to me. It covers the collateral damage in the aftermath of the patient’s passing, minutiae that is often overlooked – “someone has to sweep the floor, pick up her dirty clothes” – and a burning desire to shut the world out. Though the album is not actually about death, it’s a visceral description of a deep pain that forced me to consider my own situation, and provided some much-needed catharsis, if only for a few minutes at a time.

While music can’t fix any of the emotional issues that linger on in the months following the death of a loved one, it is the most malleable artform and can often bend to the will of the listener; which makes it a particularly helpful tool for those trying to cope with loss. We spoke to some people about the music that helped them through their darkest moments.

ALEXANDRA

CORINNE BAILEY RAE – CORINNE BAILEY RAE

In the first few months after the death of my father, So much of the music I heard used to make me cry for one reason or another, as did TV programmes. I remember sobbing in front of Colin Jackson on Who Do You Think You Are even. It felt as though I had lost the one person who was really interested in me as a person. I can clearly remember listening to the first track of Corinne Bailey Rae’s first album, “Like A Star”. It made me remember the feeling of being loved unconditionally, even though it is a song about a lover, not a parent. For the first time I thought of myself as lucky. If I close my eyes I can remember what it felt like to be hugged by him, I can hear his laugh.  

The atmosphere of the album is one, for me, of joy and healing. It makes me think of my experience of family and lifts my spirits. The final song, “Butterfly”, is obviously a homage to her mother but for me it feels like a tribute to my father. Slowly but surely this album helped me onto a new stage of grief, if you like, an acceptance and an ability to treasure memories instead of feeling them as a physical pain. I still listen to the album regularly and it still makes me feel the same, even ten years after his death.

HANNAH

GIL SCOTT-HERON & JAMIE XX – WE’RE NEW HERE

I fell in love with “Kettering” from The Antlers’ Hospice when my father was ill, but it wasn't ‘til after he passed away I realised what it was about. Listening to the album as a whole is still heartbreaking. But, it was listening to Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx’s We’re New Here, that actually helped me through the loss, particularly “I’ll Take Care of You”. It was like my dad was letting me know he'd still be there anyway. It was a new genre of music for me at the time, as I didn't want to associate his death with anything I had listened to before.

It all happened very quickly; I found out he was terminal in May 2011, he went into hospice on June 2 and passed away on July 18. He was down in Hastings and I was working in Manchester so I could only afford the £100 train every other weekend before he died. I maybe saw him six times. I hate myself for not quitting that job and staying there instead. Those albums got me through those terrible train trips, and then the following empty weekends when I didn't have a train to catch anymore.

JEFF

MOUNT EERIE – A CROW LOOKED AT ME

Mount Eerie’s new album has been helpful for what I’ve been going through of late – I lost both of my parents at a young age, and a close friend of mine died from a drug overdose a few weeks ago. The overarching theme of the inevitability of death has helped me deal with my grief. Phil Elverum wrote the album for his wife, who passed away from pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2016. He recorded the album – primarily sparse acoustic guitar and vocals – in the months following her death, in the room that she died in. He writes very literally, and avoids romanticizing the situation through metaphors: it is pure, unadulterated pain. On opening track “Real Death”: “Death is real. Someone’s there and then they're not, and it’s not for singing about. It’s not for making into art.”

It’s one of the first albums I’ve heard since Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens that feels accurate, and it gives me security in the fact that someone else shares this pain.

NATHAN

GLEN HANSARD – RHYTHM & REPOSE; BECK – MORNING PHASE; JOANNA NEWSOM – DIVERS

In September 2014, my older brother died suddenly at age 40. He left the small office we had worked in together for 11 years on Monday, and had passed away before I got to the hospital the next evening. My brother's music has been central throughout my life. Listening to him play and sing “Night Swimming” while I curled up under the old Spinet piano; sneaking his REM CDs that my parents had forbidden, introducing me to what would remain my favorite genres and singing and playing piano at my wedding.

Grief isn’t some simple, flat thing. It'’s a diamond – hard, sharp, and multifaceted. I found that different musicians helped me address different aspects of grief. Glen Hansard’s Rhythm and Repose was helpful in naming losses. Happy memories that feel soured, the pain of the immediate absence, and the cutting realization of things that won’t happen.

Beck’s Morning Phase has very simple lyrics but the music itself with the sweeping orchestral movements helped me feel again when my mind and body were just dead things.

Joanna Newsom’s Divers – particularly the last song, “Time, As a Symptom”, helped me to form a path through the grief: “So it would seem to be true / When cruel birth debases, we forget / When cruel death debases / We believe it erases all the rest that precedes / But stand brave, life-liver / Bleeding out your days / In the river of time / Stand brave / Time moves both ways / In the nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life.”

DEB

THE GASLIGHT ANTHEM – THE ‘59 SOUND

My grandad passed away in 2009, shortly before his 60th wedding anniversary. Not long after, I had Scuzz on the TV at home, and “Great Expectations” by the Gaslight Anthem was playing. The lyrics “everybody leaves, and I’d expect as much from you” struck a chord with me. The next day I drove to HMV and bought The ‘59 Sound – I was a latecomer to the iPhone craze.

By day, I was helping everyone in my family through their grief, letting them talk about their loss and holding back my own feelings to allow them to feed off that strength and get through it. By night, I escaped. I would wait until the lights went out at my parents house, then I would get in my car, put the album on, and drive from my home in Liverpool, down the coastal roads to Southport. Sometimes I would be singing, sometimes crying. It helped me address my grief yet provided utter escapism. ‘Miles Davis and the Cool’ helped me deal with most of the shock that he was not coming back: "Don’t wait too long to come home, I will leave the front light on".

While I am not saying that the album ‘cured’ my grief, I can honestly say I don’t think I would have survived without it. I was in the darkest place I have ever been and I wasn’t coping, but my secret drives with that album on repeat kept me sane.”

JESS

SUFJAN STEVENS – CARRIE & LOWELL

I lost my fiancée, Hannah, after she shot herself in our home. She had taken LSD alone, and panicked before help could arrive. I was on a plane and fell asleep, then woke to all her desperate texts in one lump. Grief has plagued me in the months since. Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell is the one album I constantly return to while dealing with this tragedy. It's raw, honest, pained. It was written by Stevens in the aftermath of his mother’s death. The two had a harrowed relationship – she suffered from alcoholism and schizophrenia, and was not present for the majority of his childhood.

I find myself attaching to certain songs as I work my way through emotions – each track is like some whack Kubler-Ross stage of grief. The should’ve, would’ve could’ve of “Should Have Known Better”, the diary of self-destructiveness on “Drawn to the Blood” – “I’m drawn to the blood, the flight of a one-winged dove” – and the repetitive longing on “All of Me Wants All of You”.

With only seven months down and a lifetime to go, I’m currently stuck on “John My Beloved”, which is often played on repeat. There is no way to get over this kind of loss. The wound scabs, but it never heals completely. I will always scratch it off.