The Coping Power of Music

by

September 20, 2008

Back in February of this year, I reviewed “You Can Let Go”, a single by a new artist named Crystal Shawanda.   The song hit home for me, having lost my father to cancer only a year earlier.   I tried to keep a professional distance, and only alluded to this in my review:

I knew where “You Can Let Go” was going to end up by the third verse, but I was still choked up by it, as the songwriters painted an achingly accurate portrait. I won’t give away the lyrics here, but if you’ve witnessed this in your own life, you’ll know that the way they describe it is exactly what it’s really like.

Ever since that review was published, there’s been a consistent trend in its comment thread.  Every few days, another reader shares their own personal story about losing their father, and expresses how the song has brought them some comfort.   It’s easy to overlook the power that music can have, and songs like “You Can Let Go” can be dismissed as cloying or manipulative because they deal with such heavy emotions. But the reality is that once you’ve actually lived through an experience like the one in this song, it helps you deal with the devastating emotions that go along with it.

There’s a line in “You Can Let Go” that says, “It was killing me to see the strongest man I ever knew, wasting away to nothing in that hospital room.”   I first suspected something was wrong with my father when we were moving furniture on to the back of his truck, having promised to deliver it to my aunt’s apartment.   After so many years of him doing most of the heavy lifting, I knew something was wrong when he was quickly winded, and felt so sick he had to stop to rest.

My mind told me something was wrong, but I figured it was a hot summer day and hey, he’s getting older.  But the back pain he was complaining about was getting worse.   It had to be pretty bad for him to complain in the first place.  This was a man who worked construction jobs as an electrician, and would use duck tape as a band-aid when he cut himself at work.   The second week of September, he was diagnosed with cancer. The last week of January, we held vigil around his bed as he slowly slipped away from us.   That last night, we told him to go.  That we’d be okay.  That we wanted him to go to heaven.   That he could let go.

There’s a numbing effect that surrounds you when you go through the wake and the funeral, but nothing prepares you for the emptiness that awaits after it.  People always ask how you’re doing when they know someone you love is sick, and the good friends are there for you all the way through the end.   But it’s the aftermath, the months and years that go by with that person still gone, that are so hard to navigate.   People who haven’t gone through it yet cannot understand it or relate to it, and the last thing you want is for them to be able to.

It’s here where the coping power of music comes into play.  A song like “You Can Let Go” gives the needed catharsis, allowing those feelings to be released.    I won’t call it a healing power, because the loss of a loved one never heals.   You just cope with it better every day, until the emotions are so far from the surface that they’re nearly undetectable.   The comments this song has produced are so open and vulnerable that I wish I’d been that honest and brave when I originally reviewed it.

What I’ve learned is that I’m not the only one who copes with hardships through music, and I think that country music in particular can be a tremendous resource when dealing with issues of loss.   For me, the song that I keep going back to is Iris Dement’s “No Time To Cry”, which was later covered by Merle Haggard and Joe Nichols.  She wrote it on the first anniversary of her father’s death:

But now I’m walking and I’m talking,
Doing just what I’m supposed to do.
Working overtime to make sure that I don’t come unglued.
I guess I’m older now and I’ve got no time to cry.

I’ve got no time to look back, I’ve got no time to see,
The pieces of my heart that have been ripped away from me.
And if the feeling starts to coming, I’ve learned to stop ‘em fast.
`Cause I don’t know, if I let ‘em go, they might not wanna pass.

Great songs hold up a mirror to the listener and allow them to see the true reflection that they’ve been dodging.  Hearing this song made me wonder if everything I do – teaching, tutoring, graduate school, catechism, and yes, even blogging – are just me “working overtime to make sure that I don’t come unglued.”

Maybe just listening to songs like this help me keep it all together.  I don’t know for sure.   But music’s a lot more powerful than the individuals who draw their strength from it.   I suspect I’m not the only one who has needs songs like “No Time to Cry.”   I hope that some of our readers will share the songs that have helped them cope during difficult times.

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  1. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Wow! What a powerful piece! I just talked to my dad today. We talked about the family, laughed about nothing and argued about politics. I loved it. He and I have always been close. He wanted the adress to Country Universe so that he could read what I’ve written. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to give it to him because I’m not really into my family reading what I write, because our politics *are* rather at odds with each other and this blog *does* touch on politics from time to time. I think I’ll give the address to him though. He accepts that we disagree on such things and I need to be grateful that he’s interested in this part of my life, my love of country music. He’s never loved it as much as I do, but he’s always made an effort to show an interest in my interest in it. Because he’s so smart, he just naturally seemed to know a lot about country music and shared a lot of its history with me when I was young.

    Thank you, Kevin, for putting yourself out there with such a vulnerable part of your life. Sometimes, those of us who still have our parents need to be snapped back to the reality that they’re not always going to be here with us.

    I’m going to email my dad the url for Country Universe now and I’ll bet that he’ll be one of our most loyal readers.

  2. vpNo Gravatar says:

    this is an example of music touching people not so much coping. Alan Jackson’s “Remember When” from the first to the third verse is mine and my husbands relationship down to almost every word exact and every time i hear it i have very fond memories and as for the rest of the song i hope our relationship continues on the same path as the song as it has thus far. I am a True believer that music can be the most powerfull connection to emotions and i’ve said it befor on this site in the middle of everyone’s arguing “constructive critisim”, why not instead of picking at people and their faults or being so harsh on songs just try to enjoy music cause that’s what it is meant for.
    GREAT article Kevin. i have a couple more songs i could share that i often turn to but i haven’t decided if i want to get that personal yet.

  3. Matt BNo Gravatar says:

    That’s the healing power of music. When we think we can’t get over something, it hits us like a ton of bricks.

    I’ll relate this story. Back in November of 1996, I came home from High School and was called about an hour later by one of my friends. He was crying on the end of the line. Our mutual friend, the glue of a whole group of friends, had killed himself.

    John Michael Montgomery had a song out around the time that he wrote for his father called “I Miss You A Little.” I cried everytime I listened to this song. particularly the chorus:

    “I miss you a little since you’ve been gone
    A few little memories keep hangin’ on
    I miss you a little, I guess you could say
    A little too much, a little too often
    A little more every day”

    It just was what I needed to help me heal.
    Also, it’s why Blaine Larsen’s “How Do You Get That Lonely” hit me the way it did. Some call that song hokey, I call that song real.

    I had already experienced the death (to bone cancer) of my grandpa and grandma to alcohol poising. I am very thankful that I haven’t lost a parent or my father’s parents. In fact my grandmoter is the strongest person on earth that I personally know, because she saved both my grandfather and father from Alcohol and drug addictions. When everyone told her to give up, she didn’t. That’s why I can relate One Flew Souths “She’s A Gift” to her.
    http://www.roughstock.com/audio/one-flew-south-shes-a-gift

  4. Lynn DouglasNo Gravatar says:

    Thank you for sharing Kevin. It brought me to tears. I haven’t been paying attention, but I went back and read all of the comments for the Shawanda song. They are truly touching. I’ve lost both of my parents in the last few years, one to cancer. I don’t connect with the song, mainly because my pain feels so personal, but I do appreciate the stories. It somehow makes it easier to know that other people are going through something similar. Grief can be very isolating.

    The music I find most comforting are the songs that remind me of my parents. My mom’s favorite Christmas carols, my dad’s Elvis records, old Neil Diamond songs (they used to love to dance together in the living room)…

    As for country songs, after my dad passed away, I gave my brother a picture frame containing a great picture of him and my dad. I had engraved on it a verse from George Strait’s “Love Without End, Amen.”

  5. Matt BNo Gravatar says:

    I should add the bridge of “She’s A Gift” really speaks to my grandmother:

    “I see magic has been made here
    Children growing with no fear
    A peace is all around us I know how,

    She’s a gift to everyone she meets,
    makes it easy to believe
    that goodness is alive in this world,
    she’s a gift
    to help me keep my path
    share a smile, hide a laugh
    to say the three best words I’ve ever heard
    she’s a gift.

  6. TomNo Gravatar says:

    “you can let go” is a musically pleasant and lyrically totally predictable song by a fine new artist.

    that doesn’t sound like very much on first glimpse, but somewhere beneath, this little song sends out such a strong message, capable of touching even casual listeners and evoke emotions strong enough that it made someone stopping on the roadside with watery eyes (quote from one post).

    quite powerful music.

  7. Chris D.No Gravatar says:

    Very touching article, and it’s nice to know that one song could do all of this for people.

  8. JakeNo Gravatar says:

    Great article Kevin. “You Can Let Go” is a great song, but I will admit that I can’t relate to it(at least not yet) as I lost my father young, and am still a teen coping, but I think that’s the beauty of music, not all of us are going to relate to every single song, but there’s always that one person or couple of people that can truly relate to it, and that’s what makes the music world keep spinning IMO.

    BTW, Lynn, I love that you used “Love Without End, Amen” for the picture frame, that is a truly amazing idea. :D

  9. Kent says:

    I’ll start off by saying what a great and powerful article that was. But I’ll also pose a question: do some of these songs not unleash some of the emotions that you may not necessarily want to feel?

  10. JakeNo Gravatar says:

    Kent, I also ask myself that question, and for me, it goes more for those songs that I listened to last year, and for some reason, now I don’t like listening to them, not because I’m sick of them or that they’re bad, but because that was a time in my life that that was a song I could relate to more.

    Also, on a side note, after rereading the article, I think a topic outside of the music part of the article, is that I think our society hasn’t yet been able to talk about death, it’s a hush hush type of thing that not many will talk about, mostly those who haven’t gone through it. But on another note, it’s hard to talk about with other’s who have lost someone at the same time because coping is different for everyone.

  11. FelipeNo Gravatar says:

    Beautiful article.

    Fortunately, the only time I passed through a death experience, I was just 6, that’s about 11 years ago, so I wasn’t able to comprehend this kind of thing. But now, by seeing my mom and others, I know how it hurts, and every time I think about losing someone, God, I’m helpless…

    But, coming back to the topic purpose, there’s a lot of songs that I can relate to, for good or for bad… But they are so much, that I can really think of them right now. I’ll take one specific case and talk about the songs I relate to in the moment.

    One year ago, I moved to a small town. That’s about 600 km (something like 370 miles, not that far) from home, and I didn’t know anybody for here, but I was believing that it would be a good experience. So Underwood’s “Starts With Goodbye” made a lot of sense to me (excepting the fist verse, obviously hehe). I was ready to say goodbye to all my friends, all my life, waiting for something fresh, and it had to be great. But then I got here, and… it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. I don’t know why for, but all my family got disappointed and everything. And was at this time that I started to discover country music more “deeply” (I’m still a newbie hehe), and I found “Heartbreak Town” from Dixies Chicks, and I loved it so much. I love this song untill today, when all this thing has kinda pass. As I said, it took some time, but now I’m living good here, and don’t even think about returning anymore! hehe Just a few weeks ago, I found a really good song, “Humble Town”, by Joanna Cotten, and I really liked it! That’s great, and I can relate to it too, but no so deeply as I could before.

    Well, that’s it. I’m sorry for making these enormous post, but it just happened…hehehe
    One more time, sorry for my bad English, but I hope everybody understand everything I said!

  12. Chris N.No Gravatar says:

    I’ve had experiences like this, and I still think the song is cloying and manipulative.

  13. JoeNo Gravatar says:

    For me, that song is Suzy Bogguss’ “Saying Goodbye to a Friend” from the Give Me Some Wheels album …

    if I lose my concentration
    disappear from the conversation
    don’t mind me
    i’m saying goodbye to a friend
    i try to start each day out cheerful
    but if my eyes get blue and tearful
    please understand
    i’m saying goodbye to a friend

    I entirely realize it’s indulgent, there is no catharsis and I suppose sometimes that’s what I’m looking for, a sad song that I can just wallow in. Just the fact that I’m sure we all predicted where Shawanda’s song was going proves its manipulative intent; but again, sometimes we want that.

  14. Russ BermanNo Gravatar says:

    To me Patty Loveless’ “How Can I Help you To Say Goodbye” is a gem among emotional songs about loss.

  15. amanda and trina conkinNo Gravatar says:

    I love the song because it, to me ,is about my papaw who died of cancer only learning about it 8 months ago.We were told he had 6 months but he was gone in 4 weeks.The song made me cry, because it made me think of him.Just like your dad, my papaw was a strong, hardworking man who was never sick.We watched him decline as his illness progressed, it was heartbreaking.We to had to go through a hardship, and we also told papaw it was ok to let go we were ready.

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