By Dani Hart, a sustainable growth advisor and yoga teacher helping people optimize the "stress + rest = growth" equation to prevent burnout.
As the thoughts of your life together surface, your vision blurs and the tension in your chest becomes unbearable. You gasp for air.
Alone in bed after a loved one passes, you’re crying your eyes out. The uncontrollable tears start to blend together into a hopeless spiral of mourning the one you love and lost.
They’re gone and there’s nothing you can do or say to bring them back home. You feel abandoned and are left to grieve.
You’re not alone.
The time following the loss of a loved one sends us all through waves of unexpected emotions. We get angry, sad, hysterical, and we walk around feeling like we are carrying the weight of the world in our own body.
During these restless nights and grey days, our family and friends go back to their normal life. The sympathy texts, phone calls, and cards slow down, and we’re left with a gaping hole in our hearts where our loved ones reside.
Our windshield of life is clouded with despair, but we do have something that can help us bring clarity to our emotions and what lays ahead… music.
Music is our friend in the dark when no one else is there to comfort us. It’s the sound that can help us dig to the bottom of our deep wounds and begin the healing process.
How music and sad songs can help you grieve.
Everyone’s grief looks different, no two days will be the same, and you have every right to feel exactly how you feel after a loved one passes. Emotions come and go and preferences on music or lack thereof will likely change as you move through the grieving process.
We asked 146 people about their experience listening to music while they grieve the loss of a loved one. While suggestions of music varied from reggae to smooth jazz and everything in between, there were also those who couldn’t bear to listen to music at all in the fear that it will trigger a breakdown they weren’t emotionally strong enough to handle.
The wide variety of responses shows that there is no one right song for grieving. Instead, there are different types of music that can help express emotions, distract from overwhelming grief, find connection, celebrate life, uncover motivation to carry on, and invite peace into life.
Here is the full Spotify playlist of everything we cover here, if you want to just dive on in!
1. Expressing Emotions.
“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
― Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare
When someone you love passes away, you have the choice to sit with your emotions or avoid them completely. Some people choose to not listen to music because they don’t want to trigger memories that evoke painful feelings.
However, there are benefits to feeling emotions. While sobbing may not always sound appealing, it is something that helps you release tension in your body and begin the process of letting go.
According to Dr. Judith Orloff, after crying, our breathing, and heart rate decrease, and we enter into a calmer biological and emotional state. More interestingly, it was found that emotional tears shed hormones and other toxins which accumulate during stress. Studies also suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer and “feel-good” hormones.
So good news is that crying can actually make you feel better. Knowing this, you may be more inclined to find the sad song or the song that triggers memories so that you can quite literally cry it out.
Try finding music that matches the emotions you’re feeling. If you’re sad, try crying to Candle in the Wind by Elton John or if you’re angry, play Break Stuff by Limp Bizket as you scream out the lyrics. Whatever you’re feeling, there will be music to help you process the emotions.
Songs to try listening to:
Wiz Khalifa ft. Charlie Puth - See You Again
James Taylor - Fire & Rain
Tracy Chapman - Fast Car
Maggie Rogers - Dog Years
How others have used music to help express their emotions:
“I need music. It fills the silence. There are certain songs that make me cry. But crying is therapy.”
“I love the fact that it doesn't matter what your feeling there's a song for that 😁”
“I listen to music to make me feel the pain, not to make me feel better, but for me, feeling helps. I need to get it out.”
2. Mindful Distraction.
Now let’s pretend today is the first day since your loved one passed that you got out of bed, took a shower and got ready to take on the world. It’s the first day you feel strong enough to take on life without your loved one, or at least pretend for a bit. After all, you know your loved one would want you to be happy and carry on.
Or maybe it’s two years later and you’re deciding to pull yourself out of the sadness that has been showing up randomly ever since they passed.
In these moments, music can be a great way to bring you back to yourself, the present moment and help you feel whole again.
Try putting on a new upbeat song that doesn’t remind you of the one you lost. Close your eyes and get lost in the sound. Dance like nobody's watching, bringing your body into the groove.
Allow the music to travel through you as you live in the moment, focus on every beat, and let the past live in the rearview mirror for a few minutes.
Songs to try listening to:
Bob Marley - Three Little Birds
Poolside - Esperar Pra Ver
Jack Johnson - Upside Down
Boombox - Showboat
How others have used music for distraction:
“Sometimes I just play my stereo at home and dance my ass off by myself. It's a welcome distraction.”
“I jump from country to 80s. It has helped big time. Put it on loud and let yourself get lost in it.”
“Believe it or not I’ve been listening to Reggae as its peppy and not sad...and I don’t have to worry about one of our songs coming on.”
3. Connection & Celebrating Life.
After a loved one passes, you will feel abandoned at times. When you’re alone in the car, cooking dinner at home, or tossing and turning in bed, music can be a refuge from the feeling of isolation.
If there’s no one else around to comfort you in the midst of the waves of emotions, music can also be a beautiful way to connect with your lost loved one.
Some of the people we surveyed made playlists of all of their loved one’s favorite songs to commemorate their life.
One woman said, “I made a playlist with songs that reminded me of him and I absolutely love it! It doesn’t make me sad, it makes me remember how great of a love story we had. I listen daily now!”
Here’s how others have used music to celebrate & connect to their loved ones:
“I listened to A Star is born soundtrack, it helped me cry it out. To get in better spirits I switched to Grateful Dead. Music calms me, but for the first six months I couldn’t sing. Now I’m belting them out and smiling at the memory of my husband saying “ sing it baby “ I can’t sing to save my life, but he knew I loved it.”
“It takes me back to 'good feelings' times or helps me feel the pain so I can deal with my loss. Songs themselves can trigger good and bad times, express how I feel or help me feel my love one's presence even if it is from a past experience with them or something I learned from them. 'I Can Only Imagine' reminds me of my mom's beliefs and how wonderful it must be for her to meet her maker instead of suffering here on Earth.”
“I have a CD of songs she downloaded in my cd rotation in my car and I feel a spiritual closeness when i play it because it’s what she made and listened to.”
“I have playlists of songs he told me to listen to because they made him think of me. I can even hear him sing some of them to me.❤”
“Personally I have been listening to all my moms favorites which may be hard for some but is therapeutic to me. Lots of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Counting Crows. I really loved my moms taste in music😍😍”
Going through the grieving process, there will be times where you know you need to move on and live life the way your loved ones would want you to. However, finding the motivation to do this can be daunting.
Try listening to songs that lift your spirits and have inspiring lyrics to help you reach your full potential.
Songs to try listening to:
Matisyahu - Sunshine
Can’t Hang - Bird River Grove
Kat Wright - The River
New Radicals - You Get What You Give
Here’s how others have used music for motivation:
“Makes me emotional but also help me get things done in our home .🌹”
“If it wasn't for music, I would still be under the covers.”
Anxiety and racing thoughts can quickly overwhelm anyone that loses a loved one. The regret of the past and worry of the future without them can become too much to deal with.
If you’re having a hard time sleeping and quieting your mind during your grieving process, or if music triggers too much pain for you to deal with on your own, playing peaceful sounds can help.
Try playing music without vocals, nature sounds, or guided meditations to help put your mind at peace.
Songs to try listening to:
M83 - Midnight Souls Still Remain
Ludovico Einaudi - Nuvole bianche
Ceilidh - Suaimhneas
Zen Music Garden - Ascension
Here’s how others have used music for peace:
“Look up the 9 solfeggios ... they have a tone just for grief ! You can have it playing in the background and receive the benefits!”
“Ludovico Einaudi really calmed me when I was grieving. It's beautiful and helps me relax even now many years after my grief.”
Everyone handles grief differently. If music is too painful for you to handle at this moment in your grieving process, know that is okay.
If this is the case for you, practicing mindfulness can help you bring your attention to the present moment and help you experience more of what life has to offer.
To practice mindfulness, inquire what each sense is experiencing in the moment.
What do you smell?
Are you holding tension anywhere in your body?
Can you feel the air moving in and out of your body?
What do you see around you?
Try to describe the items around you with their shape, color, and texture.
What do you hear?
What is the furthest sound you can hear?
Take the time to taste your coffee or tea as you sip it.
As time goes on and you feel ready, try introducing music back into your life.
Other ways to use music for grief.
While listening to music in the comfort of our own homes, cars, and headphones can be a great way to help with the grieving process, there are other options to consider.
1. Live Shows.
Going to a live show, feeling the bass pass through your body, singing along, and sharing the experience with a community of people can be extremely therapeutic when you’re experiencing a loss.
Invite a friend to see a show nearby with you or go to a local bar or restaurant that offers live music and get lost in the sound.
2. Playing an Instrument.
If you’re looking for a new hobby to help fill space in your life, learning how to play an instrument can help challenge your mind and help you connect to others.
Who knows, maybe in the future your music is what will help others heal their grief. ;)
3. Traditional Sad Songs.
There are tons of playlists online specifically meant to make you cry your eyes out –– even if you haven’t lost someone close. These songs are proven to work, and can help make you feel better even just by recognizing the suck and the pain, and getting some of that emotion out.
Here are some of the most recommended sad songs for grief:
Eric Clapton - Tears in Heaven
Sarah Mclachlan - In The Arms of an Angel
The Beatles - Let It Be
Paul McCartney - Here Today
Celine Dion - My Heart Will Go On
Faith Hill - You’re Still Here
Mariah Carey & Boyz II Men - One Sweet Day
Puff Daddy ftr. Faith Evans - I’ll Be Missing You
Diamond Rio - One More Day
Rascal Flatts - Why
Kenny Chesney - Who You'd Be Today
Justin Moore - If Heaven Wasn't So Far Away
Green Day - Wake Me Up When September Ends
Grief is universal like music.
Grieving is never easy. A piece of us is ripped away, never to be fully returned. So as we begin to heal our broken heart, remember that there are others out there going through similar journeys, attempting to make sense of the insensible.
We have our words and music to help bond us in these tough times.
Now, we’d love to hear from you. Are there any songs that have helped you grieve? Please share your suggestions in the comments below so that others going through this process can share a part of your journey.
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About The Author
Dani Hart is a sustainable growth advisor and yoga teacher helping people optimize the "stress + rest = growth" equation to prevent burnout.
She is also no stranger to grief. Dani mourned her first loss at 5 years old when her baby cousin passed from cancer. RIP Brady ❤️.