Essay: Mourning to the Music

Listening to my dad's music brought about a catharsis, an effect I later discovered is backed up by science.

Like most kids trying to develop their own identity, the last thing I wanted to do was to listen to the music my parents liked—Spanish ballads that, I thought, basically told the same story about unrequited love. Sometimes, the singers ached to know why a lover had left them; other times they lamented the class differences that had ruined their romance. I tuned out the lyrics after a while, uninterested in these sad songs. Instead, I blasted the pop music of the boy band NSYNC and Mandy Moore.

Then, at 12 years old, on the brink of adolescence, I suddenly lost my father. He had recently been in and out of the hospital, on a strict diet. But to my childlike eyes, he seemed just fine. After returning from a trip, in a matter of days, he passed away from cirrhosis of the liver.

I had no real concept of death, never having buried even a pet. Blinded by the sudden loss,  I felt angry at the adults around me—and frustrated by the helplessness of it all.    

My mom did her best to understand my grief process. But I often pushed her away, unable to feel anything other than my ire at such a traumatic event. I grew certain that no adult could understand my grief; when anyone tried to console me, I asked to be left alone.

Instead of bringing up painful reminders of my father, the music brought about a catharsis.

But as the years passed, my anger faded a bit as I realized that all of us had lost someone; that no one could have prevented what happened. I learned to see the strength of my mother, a single parent who kept going after losing the love of her life. My mom and I grew closer, and learned how to keep moving forward. We spoke openly about our grief and held onto the memories of my father. When we visited him at the cemetery she’d remember things he would say, nicknames he would call us. Increasingly, on weekends, instead of shutting my mother out, I’d join her and we’d play music as we cleaned the house (well, as she cleaned as I begrudgingly helped a bit).

While she mopped the kitchen floor and I got ready to dust the piano and shelves, I fiddled with the radio dial, trying to find something we would both like. Most times, I would tease her and ask if she wanted to listen to her depressing radio station—the Spanish oldies channel. She knew I was joking. I prided myself on my up-to-date music knowledge, but I also liked hearing her sing, so despite myself, I’d often choose a Spanish radio channel I knew she would love. My family is from Guatemala but we listened to singers from all backgrounds, crooning words in Spanish, words I often learned for the first time through these lyrics. With the songs as white noise in the background, I would finish my chores and move on with my day,

I spent the majority of my teenage years soaking up American pop culture, able to name the tracks by number on my favorite White Stripes albums. When I got to college, I started writing album reviews for the paper, even attending music festivals with press passes. I also started seeing a therapist, after a brief, failed attempt right after my dad passed away. I wasn’t ready then, but for years, I’d felt intermittent depression and grief and I wanted to sort through my feelings. Even after so many years, I still needed to acknowledge the effects of losing a parent so young.

Those therapy sessions took me back to the last moments we’d spent with my dad. I remember that as I would look into his hospital room from afar, often afraid to walk in, I had a song stuck in my head: “Silver and Cold” by A Fire Inside. An alternative rock song, of course. For years after, I couldn’t listen to that song.

I learned later that almost everyone in my family experienced a similar ache when they heard certain songs.  My older sister had a Spanish pop song stuck in her head throughout my dad’s last days; every time I hear it, I still think of my dad’s passing. It’s a mostly happy song except for one line: “I ask God / that if I die, it’s of love / and that if I fall in love it’s with you.” In those days, we asked for a lot of things from any force that would listen: for the news about my dad’s impending death to be wrong; for him to heal and come back to us; for this to be just another routine hospital stay.

Music, I realized, could serve as one way to hold onto the memory of my dad–and not just those last, heart-wrenching days. And so, at age 19, I started seeking out these songs, turning to Spanish radio stations in the car. When the ballads my parents had loved came on, I found myself effortlessly singing the lyrics. The words I’d tried so hard to ignore had stayed in my mind over the years, taking on new meaning now. Instead of bringing up painful reminders of my father, the music brought about a catharsis, an effect I later discovered is backed up by science: A 2014 study published in Plos One found that listening to sad music can have have beneficial emotional effects, providing consolation to listeners.  

As a young teenager, I wanted only angry music—the angrier and louder, the more I could relate. As an adult, I could better understand the distinct sadness of those oldies—the way that they put words to what had once seemed so inexplicable about grief, transforming the sharp pain of my loss into something more manageable and familiar. I began asking my mom about her favorite singers; I looked for playlists on Spotify. When I couldn’t find something, I often went to YouTube, watching live performances of the songs from decades earlier.

One of my favorites was “Amor Eterno,” written by Juan Gabriel and covered by Rocio Durcal. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I could appreciate the innate beauty yet sadness of Durcal’s voice as she sang lyrics that clearly spoke of grief: “How I wish that you hadn’t left, that your eyes had never closed and I could keep seeing them…sooner or later I’ll be with you to keep loving you.

When I starting seeing a therapist, my goal was to finally put my grief away. Instead, I learned that grief doesn’t work that way. Whenever the anniversary of my dad’s death comes around, I notice my mood changing. I remember those last days in the hospital. I think of the ways in which the loss formed so much of my personality, without my even realizing it.

During those times, I seek out those songs again. His songs. My mother’s songs. They assure me that even when the pain feels too much to bear, the days will continue. That other people  have been through this; I’m not alone in my grief. In singing along, I honor my dad’s memory and I acknowledge the pain of losing him—all while embracing the joy of having known him.

Eva Recinos is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in Refinery29, the Guardian, Catapult, Marie Claire and more. She is less than five feet tall.

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