Music for the Grieving

Music is a powerful thing. It makes us want to sing, it makes us want to dance, it takes us back to where we once were, and it touches deep in our souls when we grieve. Music has a way of speaking to us in ways that plain words on a page cannot, and conveying emotion that otherwise might not be able to be understood. Music can speak to us at a subconscious level, and it can speak to us in different ways at different times of our lives.

Back in the 80’s, it was all about the mix-tape. Young adolescents like myself could record anything they heard on the radio on a cassette tape with just the press of two buttons. Capturing a perfect recording, one where you didn’t miss the beginning and the radio DJ didn’t talk all over it, was something you might spend a whole summer afternoon trying to do. Today we use playlists, but to me they are just fancy mix-tapes that are way easier to setup.

During my wife’s struggles with cancer, she built a playlist entitled Rachel’s chill-out playlist. It was something we would put on during hard times. This was a curated set of songs intended to help relieve the stress and anxiety that comes with intense struggle. Right after she passed, I shared this list of songs with my friends on Facebook, with the simple request that folks jam out to it as they processed her loss. I’ve since made it a YouTube playlist for easier sharing:

Similarly, music has played a significant role in my grieving process – to help calm me through extreme anxiety. Trying to go to a grocery store in the pit of grief can be incredibly hard. That may be something that is hard to understand if you haven’t been there, but if you have, then you know what I’m talking about. Thankfully, I got the bright idea to find some headphones I could wear anytime and anywhere. These headphones are something I still carry with me everywhere I go today. Anytime I feel stressed, or I’m about to walk into a crowded place, I’ll slip one in my ear and put on some music – it helps calm me.

My appreciation for music has grown several fold now having been a grieving widower. Outside of potentially movies, which can combine both music and imagery, there is simply nothing else that can convey the raw emotion of life quite as well as music. Over the last 18 months, I’ve heard new songs which I now cherish, I’ve discovered old songs I’d never heard, and I’ve heard songs I already knew in a totally new context – songs which I’ve heard for years, but never the way I hear them now today.

For example, I discovered this song about five months ago by Lee Fields & The Expressions:

What I love about this video is how it conveys his passion, his anger, and his hurt, but alongside still existing today. Before starting, he yells “king of the world!” as he gets set to perform on top of The Park Shelton in Midtown Detroit. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to the song he is about to belt out from his soul. Here are some of the words:

Seems like only yesterday, you were here smiling
Now you’ve gone away, but I know you in a better place

So I’m living life without you
And yes, it’s hard to go
‘Cause your memory means so much to me
And I need to stay strong
Bad as I want you here, it’s a shame to know
You’re not coming back
I’ll wait a hundred years, I’ll cry a million tears
Till you’re back, till you’re back, come back now

Time heals all wounds, gotta get myself up
Miss you again, over again
Love will not die
Walking the road, I see your eyes
I know you’re here, right by my side
I wish you were here

Wish You Were Here, Lee Fields & The Expressions

Another song, which I think most folks know, is Let it Be by The Beatles. What I didn’t know, was that the song was written by Paul McCartney about his mother that passed away from cancer when he was 14, and how his mother’s presence gave him those words in a dream.

So, I’ve been building my own playlist of music for the grieving as a YouTube playlist:

Warning, some songs have profanity

What I’ve found is that grief is not genre specific. There are amazing songs about grief in every single genre. While the songs sound drastically different, the emotions they convey speak the same universal language of loss.

One song in particular, holds a very special place in my heart – it’s where the name of this blog comes from, and it was released 45 days after my wife passed away. The song is ‘I Want You To Be Happier’ by Marshmello:

I give this song credit for helping me recall the last conversation I had with my wife before she passed – a conversation I could not recall for the first 6 months after her passing. This song I would hear in passing tapped into my subconscious, and helped unlock our final conversation together, so that I could recall it again and find peace. Music can be incredibly powerful, especially for the grieving.

Lately, I’ve been thinking
I want you to be happier

I want to raise your spirits
I want to see you smile
Know that means I’ll have to leave

I Want You To Be Happier, Marshmello

So, what I’m trying to do now is collect more songs for my playlist – to be exposed to more songs like these I’ve found already. If you have a favorite song for the grieving, won’t you share it with me in the comments? I hope some of these songs might help others in dealing with their grief one day – I want you to be happier.

The stages of grief misnomer

I recently completed binge watching Cheers on Netflix – all 11 seasons and all 275 episodes. It was as good as I remembered from being a kid. Actually, it was better now that I’m older and get the more subtle jokes. Cheers filled my time in bed alone night after night for several months and reminded me of happier times. But, it also left me with a TV-watching void to fill once it was over. I ended up moving on to Frasier – not quite as good, but Eddie the dog keeps me coming back.

It turns out that Frasier lost his job at the end of season 5, and so the first episode of season 6 was entitled ‘Good Grief’. Early on in the episode, Frasier’s brother Niles (also a therapist) parallels Frasier’s loss of a job to the death of a loved one, and so begins the episode covering Frasier’s journey through the 5 stages of grief.

When there are 5 stages of grief, they are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. There is also a 7 stage model, which suggests the stages are:

  • Shock & Denial
  • Pain & Guilt
  • Anger & Bargaining
  • Depression / Reflection / Loneliness
  • The Upward Turn
  • Reconstruction & Working Through
  • Acceptance & Hope

While we may not all have been through extreme grief (yet?), we all have likely heard of these stages of grief. The stages of grief are probably the one thing most people have actually heard about regarding grief, because it’s commonly referenced in shows like Frasier and The Simpsons.

Unfortunately, like a lot of culturally shared knowledge, it’s also very misleading.

stage – a point, period, or step in a process or development.

Google Dictionary

The word “stage” implies that these are independent periods in a process, or individual steps in an ordered set of steps. This word has no meaning at all in a process like grief, which is unwieldy, violent, unpredictable, and incredibly random at times. So, if they aren’t stages, what are they? They aren’t phases, as that word also implies a distinct period in a series of events.

The best word I can come up with is simply “feelings”. These are common feelings that people grieving likely will experience. I tend to think that “stages” just had a better ring to it, and that’s the only reason that word was used. I have to admit that “The 5 stages of grief” sounds a lot catchier than “The 5 feelings you’ll likely have at various times during grief.”

It’s entirely possible that some of these feelings may happen sooner than others. For example, it makes sense that acceptance would come after denial. But, it would be entirely wrong to think that once you have experienced acceptance of your loss, that you would never again find yourself in denial – that simply isn’t the case.

Each time I go to a parent/teacher conference alone, and each time I visit my in-laws and stay in their house without my wife, I experience denial – I still can’t believe I am doing these things now without her. Similarly, I can’t say that I’ve experienced a specific anger “stage”, but I know I have been angry at numerous times throughout the last year and a half.

So, I say all this to say, the “stages of grief” is one big misnomer. They are not stages that you go through as illustrated in TV shows. They are not stages that you only experience one at a time, nor is it such that once you complete a stage you will never revisit it again – they are not stages.

I would hate to have this simple idea of how grief works, and try to apply that to how I understand the grieving, or to be rudely surprised to find out it’s not that simple when experiencing significant grief for the first time myself. I do think it’s important to understand these feelings, and understand that the grieving will likely deal with them throughout their grieving process, but let’s stop using the word “stages”, it’s just not that simple – I want you to be happier.

It’s okay to be okay, or not

I’m currently enrolled in GriefShare at a nearby church, and we meet every Sunday night. Previously, I had only been involved in weekly 1-on-1 counseling, something which I continue now biweekly. Being in a group setting has been a great step forward for me. My heart breaks for everyone in there with me – people who have lost their parents, their spouses, their children. It’s cathartic to be alongside others who can understand your loss, and to be there for others in their time of need – people who are seeking so earnestly for anything that can help deal with their pain.

One thing that I’ve come to appreciate about GriefShare is how it helps me remember where I was a year ago, as compared to where I feel I am today. Several of the folks in our group are experiencing their first holiday season without their loved ones, while this will be my second.

Recently, someone in our group said “it’s okay to not be okay.” This took me back as I remember hearing the same thing from my counselor early on in my grieving process. I remember how it gave me comfort to know that others weren’t expecting me to be okay all the time, and that it was more than reasonable to not be okay while grieving the loss of my wife, especially during the holiday season.

The other thing that struck me though was the contrast to now talking with my counselor about how “it’s okay to be okay.” Now, unlike then, I actually have some days that seem normal (whatever that is). I’m no longer bawling my eyes out daily, and I’m no longer breaking down at least once a week – and honestly, it’s disconcerting. I need to be affirmed that it’s okay for me to be okay, and no longer just that it’s okay for me not to be okay.

One thing, of many, that I’ve learned from my counselor is how grief in many ways is what helps us keep feeling connected to our loved ones that have passed. When I mourn the death of my wife, when I cry from missing her, I feel close to her – it’s the closest I feel to her now that she’s gone. And so, when I go for a week, or two weeks, without mourning her death, it makes me feel callous. It makes me feel uncaring. It makes me feel like I don’t really miss her, or that I don’t really love her as much as I once did. When I think about it rationally, I know that these are all lies.

The call to grieve our loved ones that have passed, and the desire to feel that emotion and passion of a loved one lost, are real. There will always be that calling to grieve, and yes, sometimes, I will continue to indulge in that grief. But, I also know that I don’t have to stay stuck there. Time marches forward, and it’s okay to be okay – or not.

One song that comes to mind when I think about where I’m at in my grief journey today is a hip-hop song by Mac Miller called ‘2009’. Unfortunately, Mac passed away from an overdose just over a year ago after putting this song on his last album. To me, the song is about grief, rediscovering happiness, moving forward from grief, but also understanding that it is always there if we ever want to revisit it. A fan of his put together a tribute to Mac using this song after he passed (warning: profanity):

Now every day I wake up and breathe
I don’t have it all but that’s alright with me

And sometimes, sometimes I wish I took a simpler route
Instead of havin’ demons that’s as big as my house

I was diggin’ me a hole big enough to bury my soul
Weight of the world, I gotta carry my own

It ain’t 2009 no more
Yeah, I know what’s behind that door

Mac Miller, quotables from ‘2009’

As the grief subsides, there will be days that are almost normal again – and that is okay. Similarly, in the beginning, and even years later, there will be days that we aren’t okay – and that’s okay too. Just focus on doing your best, and trying to enjoy today – I want you to be happier.

Comedian Michael Cruz Kayne shares about the death of his son

A friend of mine sent me the following Twitter thread tweeted out last night by comedian and writer Michael Cruz Kayne. It’s refreshing to see him be so honest about such personal loss, and it’s telling that he is sharing about his grief so vividly even ten years after his family’s loss. Kudos to him for sharing, and for trying to provide insights to others about what experiencing the grief of infant loss is like.

Grief, like time, can be cyclical

I was having dinner with a friend last night, and he commented on how he hated this weather. I thought he literally meant the cold and rainy weather, but he went on to say how it reminded him of where he was at this time last year – the last time it turned cold. He was in the midst of a major life challenge, one that he’s still working through today. I could relate, in fact, I had been thinking the same thing myself recently. It seems like just as time is cyclical, grief can be as well.

Something I saw on my friend’s Facebook page – seemed appropriate.

The holidays tend to be hard in general for those grieving a loss. The GriefShare program offers an annual program entitled Surviving the Holidays. It is something I attended last year, and something I will be starting again in just a few days. It’s crazy to think a year has already passed since attending it last year.

Last year, as part of the program, they broke out the widowers into a small group. There were four of us. I was the youngest of the group, which wasn’t too surprising. What was surprising to me, at least at the time, was an older gentleman who was there. His wife had passed some 15-20 years prior, and the holiday season was a tough time of the year for him too.

The challenge of getting through the holidays each year seems like a somewhat obvious repeating cycle to keep an eye out for, along with other annual events like anniversaries, birthdays, and many holidays, but there are others that might be less obvious.

For some, it’s a day of the month. Thankfully, this one doesn’t apply to me as much anymore, but in the beginning of my grief, it was the 1st and 15th. These were the days I’d have to do the bills, something my wife took care of before she passed, so that would remind me of her absence.

For others, it’s a day of the week. In my case, it’s sometimes Friday nights, mostly when my son has parents-night-out at daycare. I try to plan things for those nights, otherwise it’s too in-my-face that my normal date for ~15 years is no longer here with me.

Finally, for others, it might be a specific time of day. In my case it’s 4:03 am. Thankfully, I’m rarely awake at that time of day, but it does happen from time to time. When I’m awake at this time of the morning I can’t help but remember being in my kitchen with a policeman and a detective, not believing my brand new reality.

If it’s not a date, not a day of the week, or a specific time, it could be a place, or a smell, or a voice you think you hear passing by in an airport. That’s the thing with grief, it’s both predictable, and not. It can be both cyclical with time, and totally random as well.

As the second holiday season since my wife passed approaches, I won’t just be remembering the last holiday with her while she was alive, but now also the last holiday which I was without her as well – a sort of juxtaposition of the two I’m betting. It hit me this week that it will soon be 2020, and that my wife was not alive during any part of 2019 – a whole calendar year of events from start to finish will have now passed – there are no more annual firsts remaining for me.

My wife bought a little piece of art during her second battle with cancer that she loved. It helped her keep time in perspective, and it’s something that I now have hung at the bottom of the stairs, so that I see it every morning:

Don't count the days; make the days count.
Don’t count the days; make the days count.

It’s one thing to have a time of year, or a special date, make us sad or anxious, and then to realize why we are feeling that way. It’s another thing to seek out dates, to try and remember exactly how many days, months, or years it’s been. It’s good to remember, and it’s good to memorialize the past we’ve lost, but let’s not just count the days – let’s also make the days count.

I hope that this holiday season will be a good one for you, even if you’re sad, even if you are still broken. That you will not just remember fond times of a past we cannot return to, but that you’ll make new fond memories that you can cherish going forward as well. I want you to be happier.

Welcome, I’m glad you’re here

Welcome to my new website – I Want You To Be Happier. I know what you’re thinking – a blog? Really? Yes, really.

You can read the blurb on the about page for more information. I’m working on another project with the same name that I hope to share more about here in the coming months.

So, pull up a chair, subscribe to get email notifications, and please stay tuned. Thanks again for visiting!