Music therapy – creative support for the bereaved
Angela Delaney is a music therapist who is privileged to work with people to explore music-facilitated experiences in deep and meaningful ways where words often fail. In this article, Angela provides insight into how music therapy can contribute to the grief process.
Grief and loss
The death of a loved one is heartfelt like no other, an experience that goes beyond words.
Grief is the natural, normal human response to loss. It affects every part of us – our body, mind, spirit, relationships and feelings, yet can leave us feeling anything but normal.
Understanding of grief and bereavement has shifted. For many, the human process of understanding and living with loss is never really final, complete or resolved, effecting each person in unique ways.
People grieving a death often feel that no one understands what they are going through. We have learnt from those who are living through grief and loss that the help they appreciate most comes from sharing with others who also are grieving a death.
Creative approaches, particularly group music therapy, are documented to effectively support bereaved individuals.
What is music therapy?
Music therapy is an allied health research-based profession that is practiced worldwide. Music therapists apply creative and professionally informed music to support the health, functioning and wellbeing of people of any age .
Why use music in in this context? Music is a human phenomenon; an innate human ability, and also the only sensory experience that can activate all areas of the brain simultaneously .
Music plays a role in the lives of many people. Music helps us to express feelings and memories and to connect with others, which is an essential part of the grieving process.
The elements of music rhythm, melody, harmony, dynamics, timbre, and form address our basic sensory needs. Amidst the power and unpredictability of grief, music and music therapy have the capacity to provide predictability and comfort; ameliorate distress; and provide adaptive coping and wellbeing [3-5].
Music therapy also provides opportunity for choice and control. It enables bonding, facilitates stimulation and relaxation, enhances communication, and fosters positive experiences [6-8]. Using music therapeutically with peer group support can support participants to discover their own way through grief.
How does music therapy work?
To understand the relevance between music and the process of grieving, it is important to be aware of the effect of music on the brain, and the relationship between music and the expression of emotions.
The neurological pathway for sound allows music to affect those structures in the human brain most responsible for emotional behaviour; the hypothalamus and limbic system.
This neurological process may explain why couples decide to choose a song as ‘their song’ to remind them of the emotion of love for each other. It also may explain the effect that movies can have on an audience, through the use of music to elicit sadness, fear, or joy.
Knowledge of the effect music has on the brain has led many therapists to use music with grieving individuals of all ages. The use of original therapist/group-composed songs is effective in decreasing the physical grief symptoms during bereavement and to elicit suppressed emotions due to grief. Research has shown us that specific music therapy interventions such as songwriting and improvisation, support positive growth and the processing of grief.
My role as a music therapist involves using music and all its elements, along with verbal processing to:
- engage and support the expression of grief and bereavement through group improvisation and songwriting;
- facilitate spiritual connection by experiencing pleasure, ‘normalcy’, creativity, and community;
- create recordings and songs together; and
- facilitate connection with others and reduce isolation.
Music offers expanded opportunities for aesthetic experience and meaningful communication through its capacity to activate more areas of preserved neural function.
For 10 years, I have had the honour of walking alongside bereaved parents, using music therapy in groups to provide a safe and comfortable environment with others who have also experienced the death of a loved one.
Music therapy in a group session
Following drumming improvisation, the group explores various experiences and emotions around their lived experiences of grief, often allowing emotions to surface that may have been suppressed. Many participants report improved emotional health following a music therapy session.
The depth of personal expression shared amongst the group reminds me of the depth of resilience and bravery we may not even be aware we possess, as I witness and support their exploration of grief.
The level and intensity of emotions expressed during the session varies and at times can sound and feel chaotic, apprehensive, and explosive. Using music involves each group member directly, increasing emotional awareness, stretching imagination, and deepening affective resonance. Songwriting then allows the lives of the bereaved to be told, and acknowledges the existence and the individual nature of grief.
Music therapy has potential to contribute significantly to the experience of grief and bereavement. Music therapy is a pivotal ingredient, to bring comfort, resolution and spirituality and to provide a compassionate space for a family’s transition to the changing interpersonal connection after death.
Song lyrics from a bereaved music therapy group.
The sun rises, the sun sets
Your wings envelope me
I feel a sense of peace
Everything is ok.
Tears of joy
Tears of sadness
Make our own reality.
Feeling so hollow
Like a deep emptiness
So many regrets
As the world moves on by.
The following piece of beautiful music, Elegy for the Arctic, is from Ludovico Einaudi’s album, 12 Songs from Home. It is best watched, at least for the first listen.
Ludovico Einaudi performs Elegy for the Arctic in 2016 on a floating platform with a glacier backdrop in Svalbard (Norway). Watch on YouTube here.
And during an Australian tour in 2020 here.
Listen on Spotify here.
- Australian Music Therapy Association. What is Music Therapy [Internet]. 2012
- Sacks OW. Musicophilia. 1st ed. New York: Knopf; 2007.
- The contribution to palliative care of allied health professions. In: Watson MS, Ward S, Vallath N, Wells J, Campbell R, editors. Oxford Handbook of Palliative Care. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2019.
- Daveson BA, Kennelly J. Music Therapy in Palliative Care for Hospitalized Children and Adolescents. J Palliat Care. 2000 Spring;16(1):35-8.
- Hilliard RE. Music therapy in paediatric palliative care: complementing the interdisciplinary approach. J Palliat Care. 2003 Summer;19(2):127-32.
- Amadoru S, McFerran K. The role of music therapy in children’s hospices. Eur J Palliat Care. 2007 14(3): 124-127.
- Duda L. Integrating music therapy into paediatric palliative care. Progress in Palliative Care. 2013 12(2), 65-77.
- Lindenfelser KJ, Hense C, McFerran, K. Music therapy in paediatric palliative care: family-centred care to enhance quality of life. Am J Hosp Palliat Care. 2012 May;29(3):219-26. doi: 10.1177/1049909111429327. Epub 2011 Dec 4.