How music can ease the deep ache of grief


Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell is a meditation on the death of his mother. Danny Wright explains why the album provided relief from the overwhelming sadness when his own father died.

When my dad died suddenly six months ago, the crushing, unrelenting emotional weight meant my sense of reality fell away. The only way I could find to get through it was to tune my thoughts in to white noise and static. To not focus on anything. I went whole hours without thinking a single thought. I think Elisabeth Kübler-Ross would have called this the denial stage.

The loss of my dad caused a seismic shock that reverberated through our small, tightly knit family; a feeling of unravelling because the man who held the threads together was no longer there. Waves of grief pounded over us. In the days that followed the silence was engulfing and the air thick. Every room sounded different, emptier. I drank more cups of tea in the three days that followed than I had in the three years previously. I cried more in those first three days than I have in my entire life.

In each room sat his life, his childhood, memories, all slowly dissolving. As I sat cross-legged in the attic, going through his possessions, I found every Father’s Day and birthday card from the last 20 years; browned old newspaper cuttings carefully folded from the time he played golf for Wales in his youth; photo albums arranged meticulously into years that became a jolting, jarring form of time travel. I even found my first article printed in the Guardian (a These New Puritans review that he had listened to and, laughing, dismissed as “weird medieval music”).

At the funeral, the only way I could get through it was to pretend I was an actor in a story; that the scene would end soon, that normality would return. As the Kinks’s Days played at the packed crematorium, it seemed a perfectly fitting end to the scene; the closing credits as a tribute to a life lived to the full with those who loved him watching on. I remember people talking to me in the days that followed, but words didn’t make much sense.

And so I turned to music. Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie & Lowell, which had just come out, became a constant companion – an album about the death of Stevens’s mother and grief, eerily close to my own experiences, though his relationship with his mother was much more complicated and turbulent than the one I had with my dad.

It wasn’t easy to listen to: it’s a record of brutal honesty and soul-baring sorrow. But it also captured something bright in the darkness – it was Sufjan’s attempt to make sense of the unfathomable that spoke to me; of trying to pull together the uncertainty and unanswered questions and bottomless feeling of loss that comes with losing a parent.

As he meditated on life and death and all the mess that surrounds it, he seemed to be saying the same things I started to realise: the only real wisdom that you can glean is that grief is very much the cliched personal “journey”. It’s unavoidable, and unique to each of us.

It helped me to know that I wasn’t alone, banal as it may sound. The fact that this music offered me some relief, some catharsis, was what I needed. And it gave me hope. When it was finished for Stevens, the chaos of it all had been shaped into something with boundaries and something like clarity. “At the end I could speak for it, for the sadness,” he explained to Dave Eggers. “It was dignified.” That seemed to make sense to me. Or at least it does six months later.

At incomprehensible moments like this, some people use music as a form of escapism. Brian Eno has made a case for “emotionally neutral” ambient music, which is as “ignorable as it is interesting”. But I’ve always been the type to wallow in albums that you can fit your feelings inside, that can give them a shape.

I returned to other albums. I listened to Eels’s Electro-Shock Blues, E singing about losing his sister and his mother’s cancer, revealing so much that it feels like he’s drowning under the weight of it all, sadness so overwhelming it almost feels like a caricature of grief. I listened to Panda Bear’s Young Prayer, a raw, personal album, “a gift for his father”, and recorded in the very house where the man passed away.

And I returned to The Soft Bulletin by the Flaming Lips, an album on which the sheer warmth and spirit was intended as a reaction to the death of singer Wayne Coyne’s father. It was an album I’d lived with for many years, but it sounded different now. The song Feeling Yourself Disintegrate was especially adept in joining the melancholic with the celebratory: “Love in our life is just too valuable / Oh, to feel for even a second without it / But life without death is just impossible.”

Coyne has said The Soft Bulletin was a quest: “After my father died, I realised I didn’t know if I wanted to keep knowing how brutal the world can be. [The Soft Bulletin] is saying, ‘I think life is more beautiful than it is horrible’, but I don’t really believe that. I think the world is more horrible than it is beautiful. But we have to make it beautiful.”

Maybe it’s ridiculously naive to think that music can make things better. Or maybe not. On No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross, the penultimate track on Carrie & Lowell, there’s a moment when Sufjan sings in a despairing voice: “Fuck me, I’m falling apart.” You feel the deep ache profoundly. I realised that the events we grapple with are bigger than ourselves. Finding a satisfying answer is impossible. But, despite that, music can make it feel like it’s not futile. That’s its power: it helps you get through the hardest of moments, even if it’s only for an hour at a time.