After a significant loss in high school, I was invited to join our school counselor’s student grief group. One day the counselor gave us each a mix-tape CD. As I listened, each song made me cry, in a really good way. This was my introduction to music as a compliment to therapy.
I certainly wasn’t new to the experience of music stirring up emotions. I laugh now thinking back to my elementary-aged self, with absolutely no experience of romantic heartbreak, bawling to Boyz II Men’s "On Bended Knee". "Can we go back to the days our love was strong / Can you tell me how a perfect love goes wrong?"
I’m sure there's an album or song that immediately brings you back to a particular time of life. Jack’s Mannequin’s Everything in Transit album came out the year I graduated high school. I can still picture myself listening to it as I drove away from my last class of senior year and into a new chapter of life. That same artist came through for me years later as I dealt with a challenging illness, listening to his inspiring song "Swim":
Yeah you gotta swim
Don’t let yourself sink
Just find the horizon
I promise you it’s not as far as you think.
Currently on repeat in my head is the chorus to the mesmerizing song, "Jonathan L. Seagull", from British artist, Sampha:
Even though we’ve been through same
Doesn’t always mean we feel the same
Doesn’t always mean we heal the same
You are not me and that’s okay.
This resonates with me so much. If there is one theme of the last few years that I have tried to stress in every consultation I do, it’s that your experience is valid, your healing is valid, and so is that of those around us even if it looks different.
Songs can connect us to any emotion or experience whether it causes us to weep or floods us with joy. I dare you to listen to the new-ish song, "Lil Boo Thang", by Paul Russell and not start dancing. And yes, I know he sampled from "Best of My Love" – respect to the original.
For years I dreamed of one day rocking my child to the song, “Magpie to the Morning”, by my all-time favorite artist, Neko Case. I’m still centered with gratitude each night that I get to sing it to my daughter: “Close your eyes, now kid / Close your eyes, now kid." By my request, Sade’s, "By Your Side", played in the hospital room after we welcomed her into the world – listening to it now brings me back to the longing and love that filled that experience.
When I need a boost of confidence, I join in the chorus with artist, Fiona Apple: “Fetch the bolt cutters / I’ve been in here too long." I connect with the sentiment:
I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill
Shoes that were not made for running up that hill
And I need to run up that hill
I need to run up that hill
I will, I will, I will. I will, I will.
Of all the emotions music can connect us with, I think grief, at least for me, may be the most powerful. Every loss we experience can feel so personal, in a way no one can truly understand. And yet, there are some songs that can make you feel like your pain is not only met but channeled in a powerful way. Even if the song isn’t particularly meant for grief, we know when it clicks with our experience. "Afterlife" by Arcade Fire may seemingly be about a breakup, but as I grieved the death of my beloved Grandmother, I felt temporarily held in a sea of understanding when I listened to the haunting question, “When love is gone / where does it go?”. The slow-burn chorus of "Falling Water" by Maggie Rogers helped me to process the too-soon loss of my childhood best friend, in the already trying-year of 2020.
I could go on and on. But for the purposes of wrapping this up, I’ll pose the question to you. What songs stop you in your tracks and make you cry, reminisce, or just immediately shake your hips? Perhaps the latter you should compile for a playlist to have for the upcoming holidays (if you're hosting a gathering why not ask everyone in advance for two song requests?). And yet, listening to some of the former may be a healing activity for a time of year that can be particularly hard for some.
“You are not me and that’s okay.”
Cheers to music.