What is Our Phoenix Song? Using Music to Heal Our Grief

vcorso February 25th, 2012, 6:55 PM
Vince Corso, M.Div, LCSW, CT, Manager of Hospice Psychosocial Services
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file9811260046943My family reads every night after dinner and for the last 2 years we have read aloud the seven Harry Potter books. For those familiar with these stories, there is a scene toward the end of the sixth book “The Half-Blood Prince,” in which Harry’s mentor and guardian Albus Dumbledore is killed at the hand of Severus Snape.  It is a moving and powerful scene for many reasons critical to the arc of the story. It includes the image of Dumbledore’s bird, a magical Phoenix named Fawkes, crying a haunting lament at the death of the great wizard.

“Somewhere out in the darkness the phoenix was singing in a way Harry had never heard before; a stricken lament of terrible beauty. [...] Harry felt, as he had felt about the Phoenix song before, that the music was inside him, not without … How long they stood there, listening, he did not know, nor why it seemed to ease their pain a little to listen… [...] They all fell silent. Fawkes’s lament was still echoing over the dark grounds outside.” —JK Rowling

Such a painful moment in Harry’s life needed the healing balm of Fawkes’ music.  Harry had suffered so much loss, and now with the death of his mentor and friend, he wondered how he could go.

Often a song or a melody can act as a key to unlock a memory or a moment in the grieving person allowing the life of a deceased loved one to flood back into our consciousness in a unique way.  In a recent workshop on the use of music in the healing process held for our bereaved family members, the facilitator played a song requested by one of the grieving participants.  The young woman whose father had died recently, a patient on our hospice program, shared that she had not been ready “till that moment” to truly feel the enormity of the absence of her dad. The song was  Dance with My Father composed by Luther Vandross.  The melody and lyrics took the grieving daughter to a place, which, before that moment, was locked away. She left the session that evening more capable to do the hard work of grief, knowing at a deeper level that healing could be possible.

file000736221785Each year at our Hospice Memorial Service family members join with hospice staff and volunteers.  The lives of our deceased patients are recalled and honored in a service of readings, reflections and music.  It is the music that is the most pivotal component of the healing energy of that service.  This past year, young musicians from The Juilliard School offered instrumental selections from a variety of classical composers, each piece contributing to the personal and collective healing flowing from that moving ritual.  Another group of performers, The City Bar Chorus, offered For Good, from Wicked and I’ll Be There, made popular by Michael Jackson and written by Hal Davis, and others and the Threshold Choir an a cappella ensemble of female vocalists, presented I Will Not Leave You Comfortless, by Jan Phillips and the traditional hymn, I’ll Fly Away. Together these musicians and musical styles added a healing ingredient to the experience of those attending the service.

No matter your preference for style or composer, music can lend itself to healing the pain of grief.  I encourage you to connect with music that can offer you solace and bring you to a place of healing and remembrance. The following suggestions from psychologist and hospice music therapist Paula Marie Jones can provide a starting place to use music in your journey of grief.

Listen to Music to Remember and Feel

Sit in a private space. Play the music that stirs your emotions. Allow yourself to feel all emotions fully without judgment or guilt.

Listen to Music and Journal

Sit in a private space. Play the music that will help you feel your emotions and write about your feelings. Let it flow from you naturally and uncensored. If you want to take these writings and create a more refined form such as poetry, you can always edit later. The primary purpose of free-form writing is to release the intensity of your emotions from your body. You may choose to take these writings and destroy them since they have served the purpose of release.

Listen to Music and Write a Letter

Sit in a private space. Play the music that will help you feel your emotions and write a letter to express how you are feeling and what’s happening in your world.

Listen to Music to Connect to Your Loved One

Sit in a private space. Play the music that will help you feel connected to your loved one and have a “conversation” with them. “Talk” to them through your imagination or mind or just talk to them out loud. You may talk to them through your writings. Once you have finished talking, be quiet and listen.

Listen to Music at the Gravesite, Seashore or Place of Remembering

Go to the gravesite, seashore, place of remembering or any inspiring location of your choice. Bring a blanket or chair and plan to stay for a while. Play the music that will help you feel connected to your loved one. Allow yourself to feel all of your emotions. You might have a “conversation” with them… maybe talk to them through your imagination/mind or even talk to them out loud. Talk to them through your writings. Once you have finished talking, be quiet and listen.

Listen to Music for Meditation or for Respite to Heal Your Body

Sit in a private space and close your eyes. Play the music that will help you imagine a nurturing, quiet place that calms your emotions and nervous system. Allow the music to soothe your mind and heart and give yourself a respite from your intense and active grief reactions.

Listen to Music for Spiritual Connection

Sit in a private space and close your eyes. Play the music that will help you move into a quiet meditation to help you connect to your own personal Spiritual tradition. You might ask for help from your Spiritual guides in healing your grief.

Listen to Music for Gratitude and Celebration

Play the music that will help you create a healthy connection and remembrance of your loved one. Reflect on your memories about them and the ways you know them now. Celebrate and honor their presence in your life. Thank them for everything they are to you.


  • Spot-on, Vince. I teach memoir writing, and one of the key “memory triggers” I suggest to writers who are having trouble getting at a distant memory, is to listen to the music from that time in their lives.
    I also once did some research about this, and learned that music is the second most powerful way to unleash memories; interestingly, smell was first.

  • This is a very helpful article, and I agree with you completely! Your readers also might appreciate my article, “Grief Songs: Music for a Grieving Heart,” http://j.mp/11rtcf. Since the post first appeared in December 2008, readers have been adding songs whose lyrics have touched them in some meaningful way.

  • When my father was dying, I played the music of the 1930s and 1940s that my parents enjoyed in their youth-Gershwein, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, etc. My mother had died ten years before and I’m convinced that the music summoned her spirit from the afterlife to escort my father to his final resting place-I could feel her presence in his hospital room. To this day, hearing the music of that era fills me with memories of my parents-not just the memories of their death and dying, but memories of the special love that they shared and the love of music that they passed on to their children. Music is one of the most powerful forces in existence.

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