Handbook for Mortals : Enduring Loss : Music and mourning

For as long as there has been music, there has been music to help people through times of sadness. The origins of most Western music can be found in the Gregorian chants of medieval monks. Sometimes these were written for everyday prayers, but frequently they were written for funeral masses. From those beginnings, a tradition of funeral masses, or requiems, continued in classical music to the present.

Jazz music has long been played at New Orleans funerals. Sad songs are played at first, then happy songs celebrate the deceased and share the joy of his entering a better life. Show tunes, rock and roll, folk songs, and gospel hymns all deal with loved ones dying.

The songs and tunes we hear can serve as a unique companion. In offering comfort, music makes no demands on us at all. When singer and guitarist Eric Claptonís son died, tragically and suddenly, he wrote a song to him called "Tears In Heaven." This beautiful song struck a chord with many people. For those who had lost a child, hearing someone else mourn a similar tragedy helped them to feel less alone in their grief.

No matter the reason, music helps us turn a flood of emotions into something more manageable. With or without lyrics, melodies communicate and interact with our souls. That is why so many cultures use music, and why some songs cross many cultures with ease.

The music people use is as diverse as people can be -- from electric guitars to trumpets to choirs; from slow and soft, as in Mozartís "Lacrimosa," to bright and crisp, as in "When the Saints Go Marchiní In." Often people choose to listen to something that was special to the person who has died. This is guaranteed to bring up memories that may be uncomfortable but may also be healing. There may also be special music which has helped before, in other times of struggle, and may help again now.

What makes music so important to those who grieve? Perhaps listening to music gives us a special time just to think about the people we love. Often our minds are racing too fast, or not moving forward at all, in our initial moments of shock. Having music around gives us a rhythm, a structure around which we can reflect, and grieve. Like a metronome, or deep breathing, it gives a rhythm to our fragmented thoughts.

Music also has the powerful ability to draw out memories obscured by time or emotion. It seems to have a near-magical ability to penetrate through the present day to remind us of other occasions. Sometimes songs and melodies so accurately pinpoint an emotion that they transport the listener to another time and place. In times of grief, this magical quality can recall times and emotions long forgotten because of prolonged illness and strain.

Sometimes in our sadness and shock, we merely feel numb. Certainly this is a protective mechanism, a perfectly normal approach to grief, and nothing to be ashamed of. But sometimes music helps evoke welcome thoughts and feelings.

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Handbook for Mortals book cover Copyright © 1999, 2006 by Joanne Lynn. This extract from the Handbook for Mortals by Joanne Lynn, M.D. and Joan Harrold, M.D. is used with permission. To learn more about improving care at the end of life visit the main web site for Americans for Better Care of the Dying.
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