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The Healing Role of Music (Part 2)

Updated: Mar 30

Photograph by Kari Shea

I am honoured to introduce you to a woman who is working as a Certified Music Therapist and Registered Psychotherapist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and Kensington Health Hospice in Toronto. Her name is Dr. SarahRose Black and she will be sharing her understanding of the healing role of music in the context of grief and bereavement.

— Ruth Berzins


"Whenever I hear that song, I'm suddenly transported back 10 years ago, I'm suddenly right back in those happy moments with him."

At times when words are difficult, even impossible to find, music greets us with open arms and embraces all that we cannot articulate. Grief is often felt in ways that defy written or spoken language, and when these moments of profound and intense feelings overwhelm us, music is often a hugely powerful support, expressing what we may not be able to express with words alone.

As a Certified Music Therapist and Registered Psychotherapist working primarily in oncology, palliative, hospice, and end of life care, conversations about loss, grief, suffering, and healing arise almost every day. Whether loss is imminent, anticipated, or has already occurred, grief can take so many shapes and forms, and no two grief experiences are exactly alike, although trends may emerge in how different people cope and deal with the ups and downs that grief presents.

My roles at the bedside in both an inpatient hospital and a residential hospice setting are predominantly focused on live music, improvisation, conversations about music, songwriting, and psychotherapy as a source of support, empathy, expression, and overall care. One of the reasons that music can play such an important role in health care at any age or stage of life is that music tells our stories regardless of our faith traditions, cultural backgrounds, families of origin, long-held beliefs, or life experiences. We are a species made up of music: our bodies are musical beings because we move through the world in rhythmic, dynamic, and expressive ways. We carry around a musical instrument (our heart) throughout our life span, and the expressions of our hearts, whether physical (heart rate), emotional (spanning the gamut of joys, sorrows, and all that lies in between), or spiritual (concerning questions of our very existence and our beliefs) react to our environments and life experiences. Music can regulate our pulse, slow and steady our breathing, provide us with a deep sense of calm, or allow us to let go of layers of emotion that we may be carrying through a cathartic cry or a moment of solitude.

We are music by virtue of being alive, and each and every one of us carries with us what I like to term a "musical history." Throughout our lives, the various experiences we encounter are often sound-tracked by sonic experiences. Consider your own musical history: what songs do you recall from your childhood? Or your adolescence? Do you have positive or more challenging, complicated associations with those songs? What about your own navigation of pivotal life experiences, such as moments of growth, important milestones, celebrations, births, deaths, key moments, and experiences that will always be memorable to you? Often, those experiences have musical accompaniment, and that music embeds itself into our memories in powerful and easily evocative ways.

When we experience strong emotion, particularly the highest of highs (elation, joy, excitement, etc.) or the lowest of lows (sorrow, suffering, grief, pain, etc.), music that connects us to the events related to these experiences can reflect and mirror the emotions we feel. The music can amplify the experience, enhancing the joy, or allowing us to cathartically feel the grief. Music can also gently shift us away from intense experiences, especially if we are looking to move out of intensity and find a sense of calm. The quote I used to begin this piece came from a woman I worked with a number of years ago. She was caring for her husband who was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, and she was exploring feelings of anticipatory grief prior to his death. She spoke about how hard it was to watch him lose his ability to connect with her verbally, and how difficult it was to feel so alone as he slipped further and further away. We sang many songs together at his bedside, songs that she requested as reminders of happier days that they shared. Together, we created a playlist of these special songs that she then used as background music during his memorial service. As he was dying, we jointly sang "Hey Jude" by The Beatles to him, a song that held great significance for them both. Her adult children were in the room also singing along, and he was surrounded by music when he died. She wrote to me a few months after her husband died and shared that whenever she heard that song, she felt "suddenly transported back 10 years ago" and "suddenly right back in those happy moments with him," back to happier times, because the music itself transported her, and allowed her to not only celebrate his life but mourn and grieve his death in a tangible way.

Music provides a powerful and long-lasting soundtrack to our lives, and can be present for us in ways that words alone may fail to provide. Consider the role of music in your own life, and the ways in which music has accompanied you through different life stages and life events, whether sorrowful or joyful, complicated, challenging, or extraordinary. Consider connecting with these songs intentionally, if and when it feels right to connect to the emotions that these songs represent. Songs are some of our most powerful tools, our most trusted sources of support, and can serve us in beautiful and brilliant ways throughout our entire lives, no matter what life brings us.

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