Music Helps Bereaved Express, Cope with Grief

Around the turn of the 18th century, in his play The Mourning Bride, English playwright and poet William Congreve (1670-1729) wrote the immortal (and often misquoted) line, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.”  Roughly 200 years later, Congreve’s countryman, composer Frederick Delius (1862-1934), referred to music as “an outburst of the soul.”

The timeless (but seemingly opposing) observations of both men continue to ring true in 21st century culture. Music arouses passion and awakens long-forgotten memories; leads soldiers into battle and celebrates their victories; whispers children to sleep at night and enlivens their play during the day. Nothing can rival music in its ability to capture the joys of new love – or the anguish of love lost.

Music and Grief
Music’s power to convey the full spectrum of emotions is a comfort to many people coping with bereavement following the death of a loved one. Perhaps a song will call to mind the person who died, or perhaps it will help the bereaved to express painful feelings when words simply fail. Some people may use music for meditation or relaxation as they try to cope with or take a break from the intense emotions of grief.

Joy Berger is a music therapist and the director of education and volunteers for Hosparus Inc., the community hospice of Louisville, Kentucky, southern Indiana and central Kentucky. In a recent lecture on Death, Dying and Bereavement, Berger spoke about the importance of music in bereavement.

In her address, Berger told her audience that music’s role in bereavement comes from the fact that music is “a universal language,” and that the music we listen to is “always autobiographical.” The unique memories evoked by certain songs help transform the “past into the present,” according Berger.

Quoted in Scientific American, renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks of Columbia University puts it another way: “(Music) really seems to be as important a part of human life and communication as language and gesture. . . It is a way of connecting one consciousness to another.”

And that communication and connectedness are the things that sustain bereaved listeners as they navigate through their grief.

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