Coping with the death of a loved one can take many forms. Some may grieve privately, while others search for a shoulder to cry on. Deb Cowan, a board-certified music therapist with Sharp HospiceCare, offers her compassion and talents to grieving families by harnessing the power of music to cope with loss.
For more than a decade, Cowan has provided music therapy to patients in hospice care. For patients, music serves as an intervention to relieve symptoms of anxiety and agitation, heal relationships, and create a peaceful, meaningful closure at the end of life.
In fall 2021, Sharp HospiceCare extended its music therapy services to grieving families by introducing “Coping With Grief Through Music,” a bereavement group workshop led by Cowan. The in-person workshop, which is open to the community, focuses on how music can be a useful tool in helping families process their emotions and feel supported.
During the three-hour workshop, Cowan incorporates music education, breathing exercises and song development to help participants understand and process their emotions. The workshop provides a safe space for grieving families to facilitate expressions of grief, stay present in sorrow, affirm and normalize the grief response, and facilitate exploration of love and appreciation.
“It’s a combination of educational and experiential,” says Cowan. “I am providing exercises to help them use music in the group during the workshop but also some things they can do at home.”
A gentle way of confronting grief
One of the exercises Cowan teaches is music journaling. During this exercise, she gives participants a verbal prompt, which allows them to write freely based on that idea. The words they choose can convey a particular memory or emotion they are feeling. Afterward, Cowan collects the writing from the participants and sings them back to the group while playing a tune on a guitar.
“It’s a kind, gentle way of confronting grief,” Cowan says. “People are able to process what they love and miss about their loved one. And because they are writing it down, it is easier for them to feel their feelings, as opposed to just bottling it up, blurting it out and weeping. It is a more indirect way to understand and process your emotions.”
Along with music journaling, Cowan encourages participants to share memories by recalling songs that remind them of their loved one. “This activity acts as an icebreaker, and it can help release any repressed feelings but also remind people about the happy times they spent with their loved one,” she says.
During the first workshop Cowan held where she asked participants to engage in these activities, they arrived acting guarded and anxious.
“They did not know what to expect,” she says. “As the workshop continued, I saw that they began to feel at ease and more inclined to look within to find what they were feeling and share their experience. We closed with a happy song, and people were laughing and remembering the fun memories of their loved one.
For Cowan, music serves as a form of healing where we are given permission to experience both joy and sorrow simultaneously. “It is OK to feel different feelings at once,” she says. “You can feel the sadness, but there is also relief and joy in the memories.”