Music speaks to me and makes the house feel less empty

  • Music is one way to comfort our grief.

    Music is one way to comfort our grief. Stock Photo

Posted2/27/2021 6:00 AM

Many traditional cultures have "mourning poetry," grief customs, ways of dressing and elaborate words of comfort for the bereaved. These customs extend way beyond the funeral week to a blanket of social protections and support as the months and the years move ahead.

Even Victorian England had mourning jewelry, collectibles, black armbands and ways of dressing for years in black to remember and protect the bereaved.


In Nazareth, the Holy Land, Baheej's grandmother, Leah Warwar, dressed in black her whole life after her eldest son drowned in a swimming accident as a young man after emigrating to Brazil. People knew, remembered and supported her in her long-term grief.

Unfortunately, here in the U.S. today, we don't have much support after the funeral has passed, and certainly not after six months or a year later. But we do have quite a lot of music with heartfelt lyrics about loss, death and the sorrow it brings. These songs are primarily folk or country western, yet certainly include some Native American-inspired songs and many New England seafaring songs.

So American "mourning" music speaks to me. Not to wallow in sadness but because of the authentic feelings expressed in the words and melodies. I listen to it quite a bit and it's strangely comforting -- because those singers and songwriters understand the emotions felt by many dealing with loss and long-term grief.

"In the Arms of the Angels" is sung beautifully by Emmylou Harris. "… May you find some comfort there …"

Kate Wolf sings about the Apache ways, lovely songs -- "There's an owl flying from the South, going North to the Superstition Mountains, flying like the shadow of a life. That was the morning Phillip died …" The belief is that the owl is a spirit messenger. "And those who travel on the rim, seeking love but finding understanding, go safely on your way while the shadows lengthen in the canyon."

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One of my favorites is Emmylou Harris singing about her childhood friend, Lillian, who died young, in "Red Dirt Girl" -- "Me and my best friend Lillian, and her bluetick hound dog Gideon, sitting on the front porch sitting in the shade, singing every song the radio played. … Won't be in the news of the world about the life and death of a red dirt girl …" She also sings a wonderful rendition of "Amazing Grace," as does Garth Brooks.

Harris experienced grief as a young woman, just starting her career. She sung a lot about loss and grief, especially after the death of her dear singing partner and mentor. Her song, "The Road," was dedicated to him:

"… I still think about you. Can you see me from someplace in the stars. … I wandered in the wilderness for a while ... Down here on earth there never was a chart, to guide our way across this crooked highway of the heart."

Gordon Bok sings of the sailors' love of their boats and life at sea in New England. His songs are like love songs about the boats and seafaring. His song "Peter Kagan and the Wind" tells a story about how the spirit of his wife, in the form of a seal, saved him during a snowstorm at sea by coming over the side of the boat and covering him, shielding him from the cold. "And the snow fell upon the seal …"


Bok has a wonderful song about the love an old man has for his dying boat. The boat started leaking, but he didn't want it to die at sea. So he made a deal -- if the boat could hold together and get them to land, he'd save the timbers and build a cabin and the boat could rest and be with him in safe harbor. And he did. Bok has such a wonderful compelling voice.

The point is: Music is one way to comfort our grief. At home this winter, I have lots of time to listen to music. I love most all music. Yes, "mourning music" speaks to me.

Lyrics can be comforting, and I do find melodies very soothing. Yes, this music is sometimes sad, but comforting. I play and enjoy many types of music. I have it on in the house basically all day. This makes the house less empty. Spring will be here soon.

• Susan Anderson-Khleif of Sleepy Hollow has a doctorate in family sociology from Harvard, taught at Wellesley College and is a retired Motorola executive. Contact her at or see her blog See previous columns at

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