A Playlist for Grief
Vixi Mann explores the relationship between music and grief, by interviewing two students who have lost a parent.
Thanks to the introduction of streaming culture, adding music into our daily lives has never been easier, and listeners of all ages can create a playlist for every mood, genre or occasion. But hidden in the masses of ‘Sad Girl Hour’ and ‘Throwback Thursday’ playlists, there are private ones curated specifically to help people cope with overwhelming personal grief. These playlists are not full of songs we would ever play when passed the AUX cord at a house party, and more often than not we feel that even our closest friends wouldn’t understand the connection we feel to these lyrics, which keep lost loved ones tethered to our lives.
Of course, there are songs like ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ and ‘Candle in the Wind’ which over time have become conduits for the collective grief of entire nations. More recently, countless songs have been associated with the universal pain felt due to the Coronavirus pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. What about the songs that encompass that same feeling for an individual? Like grief itself, these songs are all too often swept to the back of our mind, as if because not everyone has needed to express these emotions, they are less valid than talking about your favourite club track.
Being aware of the absence of these conversations myself – after the loss of my father in 2018 – I set up phone interviews with Alice and Lola, two students who have suffered their own losses, and for whom music played a vital, if largely unspoken, role in their grieving processes.
When Alice’s father passed away after a year-long battle with cancer, she was sitting in another room watching the music video for Jessie J’s Domino. After saying goodbye to him, she returned to the computer and finished watching the video, entirely unable to grasp what had just occurred. That was in 2012, and now close to eight years later, the song – which holds memories for many of us, who spent our pre-teen years with it locked on repeat – is a potent reminder of very different feelings for Alice.
I sometimes find it difficult to put into words how I feel, and so listening to those songs was very poignant
But beyond that cheesy pop track, etched with a painful memory, music as a whole became a constant companion, but also a source of pain during the grieving process that followed. “Up until about 18 months ago there were some songs that I physically couldn’t listen to, the reaction was just so visceral to me, I almost wanted to throw up with how much it stabbed at my core,” she told me, citing the hymn ‘Jerusalem’, which had been played at both her parents’ wedding, and father’s funeral, as one of those songs. Every time it was sung at school she was excused from assembly, and even the first few chords would leave her panicking and in tears. “Now, singing Jerusalem, or just hearing it, makes me proud”.
Something similar could be said for Billy Joel’s ‘Piano Man’, which held for Alice some of her happiest memories of her dad, singing along to it in the car with her. Whilst initially the song was just a reminder that those moments could never be relived – (a thought that troubles many young people dealing with such a great loss) – it has since become a way to channel the happiness of the years before she lost her dad into her life now. For Alice, this shift “not only reflects the process of maturing but also grieving as a whole, I think for a long time personally I was stuck in a place where I wasn’t able to process my grief – I was embarrassed that everyone else had Dads and I didn’t”.
As for more contemporary artists, Alice cites Bastille and Lewis Capaldi as being the voices that made her feel less alone. The former being her ‘Spotify Artist of the Decade’, reflects the importance that the band – in particular their earlier songs – had in her journey; “being a medicine student, I’m very scientific in my thinking. I sometimes find it difficult to put into words how I feel, and so listening to those songs was very poignant, the lyrics would really hit me in a way that I wasn’t expecting”. Lewis Capaldi had a similar effect over the last couple of years, with songs like ‘Bruises’ and ‘Someone You Loved’ being played frequently by her friends, meaning Alice had to get used to hearing songs that reminded her of her loss whilst surrounded by people for whom the lyrics’ sentiments may not be as heavy.
Just as lockdown was descending across the UK in March, Lola lost her father to a sudden heart attack. “I just wanted silence for the first few weeks,” she explained, “it wasn’t so much a sense of guilt, I just couldn’t listen to something and enjoy it while I was in that headspace”. Like many of us after a loss, the first time she really had to think about music was when choosing songs for her father’s funeral, which seemed like an impossible task since their family’s collective music taste was so varied, and everyone had different songs associated with her dad. They finally settled on ‘Israelites’ by Desmond Dekker, thanks to their shared love of reggae, and ‘The Liquidator’, a song that can bring a smile to the face of any Chelsea FC fan, and which, for Lola, encompasses the bond she and her dad shared over their support for the team; “I knew that those were the right ones, he’d have wanted people to be up dancing to them”.
The first piece of music she found herself actively wanting to listen to was the soundtrack to the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. With a few assignments left to hand in before the end of the year, the music became a form of escapism which allowed her to concentrate on the final push, whilst also easing herself back into appreciating the things she’d enjoyed before losing her dad.
After that, music became Lola’s creative outlet to deal with the overwhelming emotions of loss. First by recording and posting a cover of ‘Renee’s Song‘ by Bazzi, to mark one month since her dad’s death, and soon after she began working on a song of her own. “It’s not about him obviously!”, she laughed when talking about her single ‘Playing Games‘, “but I wanted to do it for me, and I wanted him to like it, I imagined him listening to it in the car with me. So even though I wasn’t thinking about him when I was making it, the aim was to make him proud”.
Lola found the inspiration for ‘Playing Games’ whilst listening to artists like Mae Muller and Lizz Wright, who encouraged her want to keep pushing through her sadness rather than dwelling on it; “I’m sure I still cry every day, but I’m past the point of just wanting to listen to Coldplay, I don’t want to inflict that kind of sadness on myself, I’d rather listen to something that makes me feel empowered”.
“Music was something that did really help me, but for a while I hated it because it was so engrained in both of our lives”.
If you are currently struggling with the loss of a loved one, I hope this article has made you feel understood and less alone.
For bereavement support in the United Kingdom, call Cruse Bereavement Care: 0808 808 1677
Download Lola’s song, Playing Games: distrokid.com/hyperfollow/lola9/playing-games