Music Therapy for Coping with Grief

If you have suffered enough in life, you will look for ways to cope that are different from the efforts that haven’t worked for you in the past. For some, going to a counsellor is a new experience that they never would have tried before substantial suffering. People attempt many different things to cope and this includes when feeling overwhelmed by grief.

Grief Coping Strategies

Some people write letters to those they have lost. Some create or renew ceremonies to remember the person lost. Some want to speak to lost loved ones. There are many things possible. Some sing. While I have never sung to a lost loved one (yet), I have certainly spoken to them. One of the many things I love about Narrative Therapy is Re-membering – an attempt to re-integrate the lost person into our lives, rather than attempting to “move on” without them.

Singing to Those Lost

While this may seem a novel approach to grieving, actually it is not. We have screamed, sang, cried, wailed and expressed ourselves verbally in grief since before we were human. Other mammals do this too – a mother cow will bellow for her calf for days, for instance. OK, so we have sang for a long time, but is there any research behind it?

Research into Singing as Grief Therapy

Is it researched? The short answer is “yes”. Providing only one example, a screenshot from an article about teens grieving through music follows. Googling this article will take you down many paths, if you wish to pursue this topic further.

Grief Therapy Through Song
Grief Therapy Through Song

Grieving Through Song

Music therapy for grief can follow the grieving process (as mentioned in the research cited above), or it can be part of a ceremony, such as Re-membering in Narrative Therapy. What works for you can be determined through your own self-help efforts, or can become part of therapy.

Other Therapeutic Uses for Song

Who of us hasn’t listened to music when we were sad – or perhaps become sad by listening to music? Once, I had an especially terrible week where everything that could have gone wrong seemed to. I found myself alone, as my son was staying with his mum. A gloom settled over me that I hadn’t felt in the many years since the end of my marriage. I needed something, so I picked up my guitar and sang to myself. It was incredibly therapeutic and helped me settle my mind. One of the goals of counselling is to learn coping strategies and I realised that I had learned self-soothing, as I sang and played that cold night.

Saying What Needs to be Said

If you are deep in grief at the moment, you may want to hold off watching the video below until you are in a better place. This video touched me deeply, both as a son and father – and also because I lost one of my best friends within days of first seeing this video online. James is singing to his terminally ill father, who is sitting by his side. A very powerful way to use song in the grieving process!

Absent but Implicit

People seek therapy for a number of reasons, but often people find these reasons are obscured from themselves. For example, a person may visit a therapist with anger issues. It might seem natural to focus on the anger, but the anger itself is an effect – something else is the cause. If a counsellor helps you to deal with your anger specifically, it might provide some temporary relief, but the underlying cause still exists.

Behind the emotions are thoughts and beliefs that drive the emotions. If you believe that life is unfair to you and this makes you angry, using techniques to manage your anger won’t address your views about a world that seems unjust to you. Sometimes suppressing the anger can lead to another emotional outlet – like depression – as the underlying problem hasn’t been addressed and the person can no longer cope with the feelings through angry outbursts.

In Narrative Therapy, we look at the stories that drive our lives. The angry person in our example is enveloped in stories – stories s/he has told self, stories told from early childhood by family and significant others, and wider cultural stories. The person who feels that life is unjust is constantly maintaining and developing stories that feed into this belief. The founder of Narrative Therapy referred to these stories as absent but implicit.

Anger is driven by expectations. What are the expectations in this example? How have they been developed? How are they maintained? As noted, the causes of the presenting problems in therapy may be unknown to the client. A therapist who only focuses on the anger (or pain) can be further embedding these feelings and potentially re-traumatising the client.

It is normal for us to focus on our emotions and – especially when we are in distress – it can be difficult to understand what is driving our pain. Understanding the thoughts and beliefs that drive us can help us to modify these to better fit our lives and to help us grow and thrive.

Addiction Counselling in Narrative Therapy

Addiction Counselling Conceptualised

The founder of Narrative Therapy, Michael White, had an interesting approach for conceptualising the journey for those wishing to free themselves from alcohol and other substance dependencies. White used the analogy of a rite of passage, where the person would go from a separation phase to a liminal phase – where there was a great deal of displacement and confusion – to finally reaching a reincorporation phase, where life without the substance(s) becomes the new norm.

Addiction Counselling as a Process

Many people fail initially in their goal to break free from substance abuse. This can be incredibly disheartening. There is a tendency for many to minimise our successes and maximise our failures. Those who are not immediately able to give up alcohol or other substances can become discouraged and give up on their attempts at freedom. White attempts to get clients to conceptualise freeing themselves from addiction as a process.

Perspectives on Freeing Yourself from Addiction

Few of us would be able to attempt a marathon without rigorous training. If we attempted to do so, we might make it a few kilometers, but would we become despondent and say negative things to ourselves? Likely not, as we know that running a marathon is a significant task and requires training for all but the most advanced atheletes. Comparing to addiction, I have known a couple of people who have given up alcohol “cold turkey”, but in both cases they were told they had months to live if they did not. That is inspiration that most of us wouldn’t want!

Preparing to Free Yourself from Addiction

So, in this conceptualisation, the client realises that preparation and training are required. The finish line may not be reached on the first attempt. There is a lot that supports addiction, from friendship with others also caught in addictive behaviours, to social gatherings that focus on addictive substances. Preparing for a marathon requires getting up earlier in the morning to exercise, changes in diet to meet new energy needs, having appropriate shoes, seeing your doctor to make sure there are no immediate physical risks in you training for a marathon, etc. White’s separation stage involves consideration of what re-enforces addiction and planning for success.

Understanding Your Feelings While Freeing Yourself

The liminal phase is what is to be expected when life has changed dramatically and you are trying to get your footing again. Perhaps you have lost friends who are still addicted to substances, perhaps you don’t know what to do with yourself when you have all of these now free hours that you used to spend drinking or perhaps you are looking for a new focus for your life. This phase is going to be unsettling. You need to be ready for this. Knowing that this is a normal transition will help you get through it.

Celebrating a Life Free From Addiction

Finally, the reincorporation phase arrives when you have started to get settled in a life of being substance free. This is what you have been longing for. You have prepared for this journey and you have struggled through the hills, heat and exhaustion of your marathon of freeing yourself from addiction. There can be a number of ways to celebrate crossing the finish line, including Narrative Therapy’s Definitional Ceremonies.

Perhaps you will want to help others, once you are free?

[While I referenced my Narrative Therapy text in writing this article, White’s original article is (at publication date of this article) available online at https://dulwichcentre.com.au/articles-about-narrative-therapy/deconstructing-addiction/challenging-the-culture-of-consumption/.]

An Audience to Reflect Preferred Stories

When I was in primary school, a small number of other students and I were put in a room where the school counsellor spoke to us. At the time, I didn’t understand what a counsellor was and I didn’t realise that he was more than simply interested in us. Were we the “problem” children? I don’t know. I don’t remember being a problem, but I do remember the conversations and changes that happened over the following weeks.

The discussions we had as a group allowed us to reflect individually and we also had the benefits of an audience. We listened to each other and perhaps related to the challenges of the others in the group – I don’t remember if this was the case, but could imagine it was. What I do remember is that we encouraged and re-enforced for each other our stated goals and aspirations. I also found myself being more outgoing with other students. My outgoing nature that was nurtured in this group became a source of many friendships and of positive study and work environments during the years that followed. I was able to create a new, preferred identity.

The founder of Narrative Therapy, Michael White, noted the significance of these group interactions, observed during his years of working with children, stating:

As with the development of many other narrative practices, it was in my consultations with children that I first explored the contribution of the audience or the outsider-witness group to the authentication of the alternative and preferred identity claims that are routinely derived in narrative conversations. It was in this work with children that I became conscious of the extent to which it is the therapist’s business to arrange therapy as a context for ceremonies of redefinition – to arrange social areas in which there are opportunities for people to step into alternative and preferred identity claims and to perform them, and in which these claims can be acknowledged by an appropriate audience. (p 8)

White, M. (2000). Reflections on narrative practice. Adelaide, South Australia: Dulwich Centre Publications.

From less formal group settings – including family therapy – White was able to explore and eventually develop more formal definitional ceremonies. These ceremonies became central to Narrative Therapy.

For some issues, individual counselling sessions are ideal, but for many others, group work can provide an optimum environment in which clients can have opportunities to perform preferred narratives, trialling the fit of new stories in front of those considered peers. Group responses can provide feedback that encourages or suggests other perspectives – giving the therapy client responses which might suggest how narrative changes would be accepted more broadly.

This is not a one-way street. Others watching and taking part can themselves be encouraged to make desired change, can be inspired by the bravery of others and can develop greater empathy and insights into the lives of others.

In case it is not obvious, I enjoy facilitating group work! Perhaps this might be a therapy environment you want to consider when you need assistance?

That your evolving narratives will bring you strength and joy!

Lee Jordan, MBA, MEd, MCouns
Lee Jordan, MBA, MEd, MCouns

“Why” Questions in Narrative Therapy

“Why” questions are used in Narrative Therapy, but many other therapeutic interventions either prohibit them or strongly urge therapists not to use this form of questions. Regarding their use, Michael White, the co-founder of Narrative Therapy stated:

I strongly believe in the resurrection of “why” questions in therapeutic conversations. * * * These “why” questions open space for people to give voice to and further develop intentional understandings about life and about what they accord value to in life. * * * People are defined by their purposes in life, and the defining of this aspiration and this account of what is accorded value constituted a conclusion about Peter’s [client able to determine things he valued in relation to a unique outcome] identity that contradicted the known and familiar negative conclusions that were associated with the dominant storyline of his life. (p 241)

White saw “why” questions as a way to get the client to consider what was important to him or her and they also served to help the therapist (in this case Michael) to understand in what the client placed value. Understanding what the client values helps the therapist in efforts to look at the significance of unique outcomes on the development of alternate narratives to counteract the dominant, trouble-saturated narratives for which the client has sought therapy.


Examples:

Why did you decide to do this thing that was so out of character [discussing unique outcome]?

Why do you think this event was significant for you?

Why would you attempt this again [discussing unique outcome]?


In Narrative Therapy, the client is the expert in his or her story. The therapist is there to facilitate change, not to drive it. White suggested the therapist walked behind the client on this journey, being there for assistance, but not blocking the way in front and not at the client’s side (as the client understands better what is happening and drives change). The therapist asks “why” to help the client understand his or her motives and to enlighten the therapist.

Why would we want to avoid questions that put clients in charge of changing their narratives?

[White, M. (2007). Maps of narrative practice. W W Norton & Co.]