The Soundtrack of Loss

Our Mourning, Noon & Night columnist explores music’s evolving role in our grief journeys. Plus a Spotify playlist of the songs that have carried us through.

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Web“I just needed to know the last thing he was listening to,” my father said, the day after my 18-year-old brother’s fatal car accident in 1994. Dad was holding the broken, green cassette he’d pried from the tape deck of Phil’s crumpled 300 ZX. The last thing Phil was listening to was “Ill Communication” by the Beastie Boys.

Tré and Phil, c. 1994. (Courtesy of Tré Miller Rodríguez)

That album — along with Phil’s favorites from Bob Marley, DJ Quik, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Dr. Dre and Pink Floyd, some of Phil’s favorites — formed the soundtrack for mourning my brother. It kept the pain sharp and the memories close. As cassettes gave way to CDs and MP3s, Phil’s music became a time machine for me. When played late and loud, it transported me back to a time when my brother was still alive and the holidays were something our family looked forward to.

The lasting connection to Phil that I’ve felt through music has been echoed over the years by others experiencing loss. While their grief soundtrack might be unfamiliar to me, their emotions are not. The accounts below affirm music as a portal to memory, pain and even healing.

Lori Tucker-Sullivan (Detroit, Michigan)

Which song/artist has accompanied your grief journey?

“Shambala” by Three Dog Night.

Who do you remember when you hear it?

My late husband, Kevin Sullivan.

Why this song?

During his illness, Kevin rarely showed vulnerability, but I think his choice to place this song on heavy rotation was one of those times. It sings of washing away pain, shame and sorrow, of shining your light — all things he couldn’t say himself. He wasn’t religious, but he came to believe in Shambala, a place where he would be healed and whole again. We closed his music-filled memorial with 200 of us singing “Shambala,” sending Kevin off to a place of peace. I can’t hear the song without missing him, and it seems to magically pop up in my playlist whenever I’m down. This song is the strongest thread I have to him now, so even though the music is emotionally difficult to hear, I just close my eyes and listen until the last guitar note.

Ashley Heidler (Philadelphia)

Which song/artist has accompanied your grief journey?

The Christmas carol “O Holy Night.”

Who do you remember when you hear it?

My late grandmother, Stella Martin.

Why this song?

It was her favorite Christmas song. She had a stroke when I was young — resulting in mixed-up words and difficulty speaking — but she could remember music. We’d often sing “O Holy Night” together and once, when I performed it as a solo dedicated to her, she cried tears of joy. My grandmother passed away on Christmas Eve 2009, and the coincidence of the date is not lost on me. When I hear the song nowadays, it’s an emotional experience. I like to think it’s a ‘hello from heaven,’ and a reminder that her angelic voice is still singing.

Tom Davidson (Bayport, New York)

Which song/artist has accompanied your grief journey?

“Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd.

Who do you remember when you hear it?

My late father, Wade Davidson.

Why this song?

When I got the call at work — “Your dad has passed away. Please come to the hospital right away” — I drove on back roads like a man possessed. En route to the hospital, the opening chords of “Wish You Were Here” began to play. As the chorus came in (“How I wish you were here/we’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl/year after year”), I began to sob. I pulled over and just cried for 30 minutes. It’s been nearly 17 years, and I can’t hear the lyrics without thinking about him. That song continues to give me permission to express my grief.

Melissa McReynolds (Charlottesville, Virginia)

Which song/artist has accompanied your grief journey?

Billy Joel.

Who do you remember when you hear it?

My late father, James “Mac” McReynolds.

Why this artist?

I have so many fond memories of listening to Billy Joel with my Dad when I was growing up, especially on road trips. Classics like “Uptown Girl,” “She’s Always a Woman to Me,” and “Moving Out” take me right back to childhood. In the year after he died, I couldn’t hear any of Billy Joel’s music without losing it. While this got embarrassing, it also made me appreciate my Dad for instilling a love of music in me that lives on. It’s now been four years, and I can actually listen to Billy Joel without crying and making everyone around me uncomfortable.  

Name:  Mavis Johnson (Clark, New Jersey)

Which song/artist has accompanied your grief journey?

“Way Over Yonder” by Carole King.

Who do you remember when you hear it?

My late mother, Mary A. Johnson.

Why this song?

Although my mother’s musical taste leaned more toward B.B. King than Carole King, when I encountered Carole’s “Way Over Yonder” seven months after Mom’s death in 2014, I was instantly moved to tears. The lyrics are about standing up, being free, and finding peace of mind in a garden of wisdom. During Mom’s final days, she dreamed of standing and walking on her own again, which was not to be. She also loved gardening and could will almost anything to grow, so when I hear the song, I imagine Mom in a garden of wisdom, way over yonder.

What are your go-to songs for remembering your lost loved ones? Please share with the class in the comment section below.

 TMR-Bio ImageTré Miller Rodríguez is the author of “Splitting the Difference: A Heart-Shaped Memoir” and the popular Tumblr WhiteElephantInTheRoom.com. Her essays appear in The New York Times, Marie Claire and on MindBodyGreen.com, and she overshares at @tremillernyc

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