Managing Grief and Loss with Music Therapy

The holiday season is upon us, and with that brings some difficult times for people who are experiencing grief and loss. This year is especially hard due to COVID-19 and the hundreds of thousands of lives it has claimed. As a result, some people may have a hard time managing grief and loss this year.

We all have different ways of coping with grief and loss. One way to manage grief and loss is through music therapy. Music helps with grief in lots of different ways. It’s a great outlet for those experiencing grief, especially during this time of year.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on this topic recently. I turned to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, who founded The Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, CO. He lays out what he calls the Six Needs of Mourning. [1] I’ll be using this framework throughout this article.

The Six Needs of Mourning are as follows:

  1. Acknowledging the reality of the death
  2. Embracing the pain of the loss
  3. Remembering the person who died
  4. Developing a new self-identity
  5. Searching for meaning
  6. Receiving ongoing support from others

Dr. Wolfelt points out that grief is a journey. [2] It’s one that we must all go on at some point in our lives. It’s important to learn how to navigate and manage the pain of loss. The goal is to feel and experience the pain before we can move onto the next stages of healing.

Using Music Therapy for Managing Grief and Loss

One thing I’ve found in my work over the years is that music helps people with managing grief and loss. An added benefit to using music for managing grief and loss is that music is accessible to people at any age. There are so many ways to use music in the healing process. I’m going to lay out a few of them as they relate to the Six Needs of Mourning now.

1. Acknowledging the Reality of the Death

This is one of the hardest parts in the beginning when someone we love dies. It ties into the fifth stage of grief, acceptance. [3] How does music therapy help acknowledge the reality of the loss?

One way to use music therapy to manage grief and loss is by listening to songs that remind you of the person who died. This is a way to acknowledge their death through music. You can do this by yourself, with someone you trust, or with your music therapist. 

Songs can help us remember the person. They often lead to stories about the person who has passed. Telling these stories keeps the memory of the person alive, but it also helps you acknowledge the reality of the death

2. Embracing the Pain of the Loss

A person playing a guitar and crying. They are using music as a way for managing grief and loss.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

This is incredibly hard to do because as humans we’re conditioned to avoid pain. But in order to heal and move forward, we need to be able to sit with pain.

One way to use music therapy to manage grief and loss in this need of mourning is to listen to music that captures how you’re feeling. It doesn’t need to be tied directly to the person. You can listen to sad or angry music to connect you with those feelings. If you have a happy memory of the person, maybe you put on music that makes you feel good and keeps that feeling alive.

You can also make music that represents how you’re feeling. Vocalizing is a powerful way for music to help with grief. Playing a song you like or doing free improvisation taps into the pain through music. This is another way I use music therapy to manage grief and loss.

3. Remembering the Person Who Died

Telling stories is one way to remember the person who died, but there are other ways to use music to keep their memory alive. One thing I like to do with clients is to make music that captures who they were or how you felt about them. This can be written or improvised

You can also share stories through music, whether it be music you write or music you listen to. Often I’ll help clients make playlists for the person who died. These can be made up of songs that remind you of that person or that you used to play with that person. 

Sharing stories and reminiscing in a music therapy session come naturally during the music-making or listening process. As Dr. Wolfelt says, “remembering the past makes hoping for the future possible.” [2] It’s incredibly important to reminisce and share. It helps make it real. Using music to reminisce and remember is another way that I help clients manage grief and loss through music therapy.

4. Developing a New Self-Identity

Once we’ve allowed ourselves to experience the pain of the loss we can start to move forward. Many people who have experienced grief and loss find a new sense of identity. 

For example, a widow might eventually come to terms with what being a single woman means. Perhaps her husband was someone who took up a lot of space and she used to make herself small and quiet. Without him, she must learn how to take up space on her own and find her voice.

If we use this example of the widow and put it into a music therapy setting, we have the opportunity to explore new ways of using her voice. Maybe she chooses a different instrument than she would normally play. Perhaps that instrument is louder and figuratively takes up more space in the room. She finds her voice through vocalizing in louder and bigger ways than she used to.

You can use music to play new roles within the music-making process that signify your new role in your life. Maybe you are of the “sandwich generation” and are both a caregiver for your parent(s) as well as your children. Let’s say you lose your parents and your new identity is as a parent to your own children only. Playing new instruments or using your voice in a different way than you have in the past can symbolize your new role in your life.

5. Searching For Meaning

It’s difficult to make sense of the loss of a loved one. The grief you feel is valid. When bad things happen it’s hard to try to make sense of them. Searching for meaning in the loss of a loved one is healing and necessary.

One way that music helps with grief and searching for meaning is by finding something deeper within the loss. It’s important not to rage at the world, but to embrace the loss and look for meaning in it. 

Music has been used to find greater meaning and purpose when working with grief and loss. It is used in sacred services or musical experiences that help us transcend our everyday realities. Music can be a spiritual experience, which doesn’t necessarily mean religious. Spiritual experiences are healing for people dealing with grief and loss. The musical transcendent experiences of people without spiritual or religious beliefs are also healing.

In a music therapy session addressing grief and loss, I’d explore music that helps tap into a deeper sense of connection and purpose. We’d choose songs that help find a reason to go on or feel connected and part of something bigger.

6. Receiving Ongoing Support From Others

One of the most important things when dealing with grief and loss is surrounding yourself with a support system. Share memories. Cry on shoulders. Listen to or make music together.

It’s important when you’ve lost a loved one to lean on your support system in ways that feel most comfortable to you. Engage with family. Join peer support groups. Work with a music therapist experienced in working with grief and loss. Whatever you choose, it’s your grief journey. Grief journeys require time for reflection in solitude, but it’s important to have a support system available for when you need connection and support.

The pandemic has made it more difficult to feel connected to others, but there are ways to get creative. Zoom or FaceTime with family and friends. Call someone when you’re feeling lost. Attend online peer support groups or music therapy sessions. There are people in your life who care about you and are there to support you through this difficult time.

Managing Grief and Loss at SoundWell Music Therapy, PLLC

If you’re experiencing grief and loss, you don’t have to go through it alone. I’ve worked with many people at SoundWell Music Therapy, PLLC who have experienced grief and loss. We use music to manage the grief and work through the Six Needs of Mourning together.

If you’re looking to work through grief and loss of a loved one and explore music therapy with me at SoundWell Music Therapy PLLC, be sure to contact me. I offer a free 15-minute phone consultation during which we can talk more about what your needs are. You can schedule here.





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