We all have to learn how to manage suffering – it’s part of our fallen nature. For this reason the saying originally penned by Ian MacLaren is adopted by many: “be kind to everyone you meet, for you don’t know what kind of battles they are facing.” Being a particularly difficult subject to understand, sometimes the greatest respite from suffering is just having someone understand what you are going through or even being able to relate to your unique experience.
Over at NPR last month on All Songs Considered, Stephen Thompson had a great article about what makes a better song: the music or the lyrics. The gist of the article was that it’s up to the listener to decide because both play an equal part in the beauty of the song (“beauty is in the eye of the beholder” – could have seen that one coming, right? it’s still a great read if you have the time). In my experience, I find that the music comprises the essence of a song, but have recently made it a personal goal to invest emotionally in the lyrical content, too. This has allowed me to find a handful of songs that have really changed my perspective on a number of topics. Music has the capacity to heal for many reasons, no doubt, but I would argue that it finds the best opportunity to do so when it builds a story that the listener can relate to. This can happen through lyrics or composition alone.
As a registered nurse, I have spent a lot of time helping people through their suffering. I have found that people manage their hardships in different ways, but a common medium for finding peace is through music. Just the other night, after having a tough night at work where I once again did not have the right words at the right time, I went home and began to compile this list of songs that I believe can be supportive for the grieving person. Whether they are mourning the death of a loved one, managing tension in a marriage, having trouble finding hope, or are sad for no identifiable reason, I hope these songs give hope to any one who is going through a tough time.
As before, these cuts are all from my own music collection, so feel free add any others that I missed in the comments section below. Hope you enjoy!
1) Casting Crowns – Does Anybody Hear Her
“Under the shadow of our steeple
With all the lost and lonely people
Searching for the hope that’s tucked away in you and me
Does anybody hear her?
Can anybody see?”
First is a personal favorite of mine by Casting Crowns off their second album Lifesong. As the title suggests, the song is about the isolation that a young woman feels in the Church. This is particularly meaningful to me because I have felt that same isolation in the Church and can identify with the estrangement Mark Hall pinpoints so well. Also, the song is a reminder to anyone feeling isolated that they are not alone; because the Church is one holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church, we can always find a home in the Church – where all of God’s people belong.
2) Collin Raye – Love, Me
“If you get there before I do, don’t give up on me.
I’ll meet you when my chores are through;
I don’t know how long I’ll be.
But I’m not gonna let you down, darling wait and see.
And between now and then, till I see you again,
I’ll be loving you. Love, me”
This is the first song I can remember that made me cry upon first listen. It is about a grieving grandfather telling a story to his grandson about his grandmother. It includes a note she had written for the grandfather back when they were planning to get married. He had been waiting on her at their appointed date spot, a tree, but instead of finding her he found a letter with the words emboldened above. They form the chorus for the song and are sung in different contexts, which I will leave unspoiled for you to discover. [I really enjoy songs written in this clever song form.] Even though the words are very simple, they have dual meaning, and this coupled with the underlying hope that we will see our loved ones again in heaven one day makes this song palliative.
3) Mark Schultz – He’s My Son
“His mother is tired
I’m sure You can understand
Each night as he sleeps
She goes in and holds his hand
And she tries not to cry
As the tears fill her eyes”
Find me someone in the United States who has not been affected by cancer and I will buy you dinner.
In all seriousness, I would venture to say this song is difficult to listen to for anyone who has lost a loved one to cancer. It was written about a young family preparing for the death of their son who had been dying from cancer. The tone of the song is one of petition to God from the perspective of a man who is having a hard time believing God is hearing his prayers. When I spoke of relatability earlier, this is one of the songs I had in mind, as I have struggled with spiritual doubt my whole life too.
4) Dixie Chicks – Travelin’ Soldier
Never gonna hold the hand of another guy
Too young for him they told her
Waitin’ for the love of a travelin’ soldier”
All military families should go out and buy this song by the Dixie Chicks. It recounts the death of a Vietnam soldier and the pretty young lady still waiting for him to come home. Familiar, simple, yet a struggle to listen to without thinking of someone you know who has served our country and died. My heart breaks for military wives (and especially widows) because of stories like the one in this song. I hope knowing that they are not the only ones suffering “all alone under the stands,” military wives can find comfort in the words to this song.
DISCLAIMER: Not a political suggestion. However, it would be thoughtful for everyone to listen to this song on American military holidays as it is an easy and meaningful way to honor the fallen heroes of our remarkable country.
5) Clean Bandit (feat. Sean Paul & Anne-Marie) – Rockabye
“She works the nights by the water
She’s gone astray so far away
From my father’s daughter
She just wants a life for her baby
All on her own, no one will come
She’s got to save him”
This song is for all the single mothers struggling to make ends meet. Though many young women make the mistake of thinking they can make it on their own and give up on their marriages prematurely, there are too many others who assume this lifestyle unintentionally [see the above song]. I cannot imagine the struggle of having to work multiple jobs and staying up all night to care for a child by myself. This song exposes the paltry reality of single family homes and how it is not something to take lightly, despite the judgment most of society will presuppose without any other information about each homes’ unique circumstances.
6) Eminem – Cleanin’ Out My Closet
“Have you ever been hated or discriminated against?
I have; I’ve been protested and demonstrated against
Picket signs for my wicked rhymes, look at the times
Sick as the mind of the m***********g kid that’s behind”
[NSFW] This very raw cut is a piggy-back off of the previous one. Just turn on the news and you will realize that racial tensions are still very tangible in the United States. Eminem is no stranger to the struggle – his entire career has been spent battling the notion that he was less of a rapper than his peers because he is white. This song was the first outcry of his that received extensive airplay (as far as I can remember) and landed his reputation for being a fighter against the odds. For anyone who has ever felt inferior to others or been treated differently because of the color of their skin, this song is for you.
[Additionally, it should be noted that this song is also an unapologetic backlash against Eminem’s parents. He obviously disapproves of their parenting styles and identifies several painful regrets that still haunt him. It should be said that I do not condone this kind of treatment of one’s parents and hope that my readers don’t think I approve of these behaviors. Try to see past the indignant attitude Eminem presents and see the bold, courageous attitude instead (see also Cinderella Man).]
7) Steven Curtis Chapman – Cinderella
“So I will dance with Cinderella
While she is here in my arms
‘Cause I know something the prince never knew
Oh I will dance with Cinderella
I don’t want to miss even one song
‘Cause all too soon the clock will strike midnight
And she’ll be gone”
This song is for all fathers with daughters. I am not a father [yet], but I would imagine this is one of the most painful parts about being a father: giving a daughter away to another man who will care for her. Men by their nature want to be providers, so the notion of giving away that responsibility is, I would believe, a trying task. It is no surprise that many fathers joke about “being here when you get back, polishing my gun” when that first boyfriend comes to take his daughter out on a first date. For all the fathers worried about their daughters, I hope this song is one that helps you redirect your attention to the more endearing aspects and memories of fatherhood. See also Daughters by John Mayer.
8) Ed Sheeran – Supermarket Flowers
“So I’ll sing Hallelujah
You were an angel in the shape of my mum
When I fell down you’d be there holding me up
Spread your wings as you go
And when God takes you back we’ll say Hallelujah
Children have a unique relationship with their mothers. Besides spending three trimesters inside their mother’s wombs and being breastfed for several months afterwards, there is something biologically and inter-personally unique about the love a mother offers that sets them apart as special (in this way) from fathers; anyone who has lost their mother can probably attest to this fact regardless of the science. For this reason, losing a mother is especially difficult.
Ed Sheeran recently delivered an incredible third album with this cut being the last track in the standard edition release. Highly recommend the entire album, highly recommend this song to anyone who wants to honor a deceased mother, but DISCLAIMER: I guarantee this song will be a tearjerker. You have been warned!
9) Nickel Creek – The Hand Song
“Then seeing a picture of Jesus, he cried out:
‘Mama he’s got some scars just like me!'”
This song has a threefold meaning for me. It is about love for a child, love for a fallen soldier, and love for Jesus Christ. The overarching theme is that the child in the song learns about suffering through his hands, but the way this theme is interwoven into three different story-lines is very poignant and intimate. The song structure is not unlike Collin Raye’s Love, Me from selection #2 above. Listen to this song if you are feeling pensive or are empty-nesting and hopefully it will provide some comfort for you. Highly recommend the full album, too.
10) Ozzy Osbourne – Mama I’m Coming Home
“I’ve seen your face a hundred times
Everyday we’ve been apart
I don’t care about the sunshine, yeah
‘Cause Mama – Mama, I’m coming home”
I believe this song can provide healing for parents with a prodigal son (or daughter). Any parent who has had a petulant child run away longs for the day where their child comes to his/her senses and returns home. Sadly, I have taken care of more homeless people than I care to admit and my heart breaks for them and their parents. Listening to this song makes me think of these patients and how their parents must be yearning for them to come home.
11) Garth Brooks – The Dance
“And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end, the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss the dance”
It should come as no surprise that there is a marriage crisis in the United States: in 2015, the divorce rate (had decreased, but nevertheless) was 16.9 divorcees per 1,000 married women, which amounted to just over one million divorced women in that year: 1,110,579 to be exact. Given these statistics, songs like Garth Brooks’ The Dance should become much more meaningful, as the song is about a broken marriage. Garth recognizes that the marriage would not work out, whether he knew it at the time or not, but also that it was still meaningful for him because it gave him a great memory: the dance.
12) Luther Vandross – Dance With My Father
“Back when I was a child, before life removed all the innocence
My father would lift me high and dance with my mother and me and then
Spin me around ‘til I fell asleep
Then up the stairs he would carry me
And I knew for sure I was loved.”
For anyone who has lost their father. No explanation needed.
13) Immortal Technique – You Never Know
“By the time you get to read this, I’ll probably be dead
But when you left in ’97 a part of me went to Heaven
I thank God at least I got to know what love really was
But it hurt me, to see what true love really does”
[NSFW] This is a hip-hop song about true love. In an age where social media defines what a true relationship looks like, this cut sticks out like a sore thumb. Unfortunately, it also laments what heartache looks like, as Immortal Technique loses his love prematurely. For anyone who has lost a loved one too soon, or is disillusioned or weary of the sad state of love, this song is for you.
14) Tim McGraw – Don’t Take The Girl
“Take the very breath you gave me
Take the heart from my chest
I’ll gladly take her place if you’ll let me
Make this my last request
Take me out of this world
God, please don’t take the girl”
Also a song about loss. In this song, the singer illustrates three scenarios where he is ultimately left begging “don’t take the girl.” First, the singer is an 8-year old boy asking his father not to bring a little neighbor girl fishing with them; in the second, the same young man is begging a robber to spare the same young girl in the stead of his own. Finally, in the last scenario, the young man is now a father and learns that the same young girl enters distress during childbirth. He begs of God to spare his wife, who is yet the same young woman he didn’t want to join him fishing years earlier.
15) The Eagles – Hole in the World
“They say that anger is just love disappointed.
They say that love is just a state of mind.
But all this fighting over who is anointed,
Oh, how can people be so blind?”
We all need a reminder that there are good people in the world sometimes. Written after the terrorist attack in 9/11, this song reminds all of us that unspeakable evil is known to everyone in the world. Not a single one of us is immune to suffering. When we live in community with one another and bear each other’s burdens, that is when healing begins. I see memorial videos like the one above as one of many ways to memorialize the ones we lost and feel the consoling sense of community drawn together by hardship. See also Alan Jackson’s Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning.
DISCLAIMER: Not a political suggestion.
16) Eric Clapton – Tears in Heaven
“Would you know my name
If I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same
If I saw you in heaven?
I must be strong and carry on
‘Cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven”
Tears in Heaven will always have a separate place in my heart because it is the first song I learned to play on my acoustic guitar back in 2003. The song is about the loss of a child. Eric Clapton lost his 4 year old son in 1991 when the child accidentally fell from a 53-story building and landed on the roof of an adjacent building. You can find this song on the soundtrack to the 1991 drama Rush. Coincidentally, if you are someone who has lost a child unexpectedly, you are not alone.
17) P.O.D. – Youth of the Nation
“Who’s to blame for the lives that tragedies claim
No matter what you say
It don’t take away the pain
That I feel inside, I’m tired of all the lies
Don’t nobody know why
It’s the blind leading the blind”
This song decries the problem of poor parenting in the United States. Children need special attention at every stage of their lives, but especially during adolescence. Without unconditional love and support from caring parents, children suffer. Little Suzy, Johnny boy, and the unnamed shooter in the song all represent the more urgent sequelae of inattention to the inimitable needs of each child.
DISCLAIMER: This is not a political suggestion.
18) Blake Shelton – The Baby
“She looked like she’d been sleepin’
And my family had been weeping by the time that I got to her side
And I knew that she’d been take and my heart it was breakin’
I never got to say goodbye
I softly kissed that lady and cried just like a baby”
For the baby sibling in the family, pun intended.
19) Jason Mraz – Love for a Child
“What about taking this empty cup and filling it up
With a little bit more of innocence
I haven’t had enough, it’s probably because when you’re young
It’s OK to be easily ignored
I like to believe it was all about love for a child”
30 years of research has elucidated just how poorly children respond to their parents’ divorce. Both of my parents have enjoyed their marriage tremendously, so this has never been a worry in my life, but speaking to friends throughout my life who have suffered along with their parents’ divorce has made this topic especially distressing for me. I hate to hear about the fracturing of the family and the subsequent emotional fallout on all those involved. For days when reminiscing on the happy days is all you can do, let the geek in the Pink do all the talking.
20) Billy Gilman – One Voice
“Yesterday while walking home
I saw some kid on Newbury Road
He pulled a pistol from his bag
And tossed it in the river below”
The idea that one person can change the world is a bit cliche, but nevertheless still true. This song is about how each person can make a difference with the every day choices they make. I’d encourage you to watch the video as it adds additional meaning to the lyrics.
21) Randy Travis – Three Wooden Crosses
“There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway,
Why there’s not four of them, Heaven only knows
I guess it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you,
It’s what you leave behind you when you go”
There is a phenomenal message woven into this song. I don’t want to give away the ending of the story, so I encourage everyone reading this post to check it out! Those of us struggling with meaning in life or to find purpose, I highly suggest this song.
22) Alison Krauss & Brad Paisley – Whiskey Lullaby
“She broke his heart, he spent his whole life tryin’ to forget
We watched him drink his pain away a little at a time
But he never could get drunk enough to get her off his mind
Until the night”
DISCLAIMER: This song may be sensitive to anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide from alcoholism. It is a beautiful duet between Brad Paisley and the lovely Alison Krauss, but they depict a suicide and the suicide note left behind. Listen with caution if your story fits this description.
23) Joe Nichols – I’ll Wait For You
“I’ll wait for you at Heaven’s gate
Oh, I don’t care how long it takes
And I’ll tell Saint Pete I can’t come in
Without my love and my best friend
Oh, this ain’t nothin’ new
Sweetheart, I’ll wait for you
P.S. I love you, too
Sweetheart, I’ll wait for you'”
Joe Nichols was at one time the king of sad country songs. Although not written by him, I really like this tune and the respectful, honorable character he sings about. This song was included in the hopes that marriages that are struggling can remember what love looks like “in sickness and in health” and how to “love and honor [your spouse] all the days of your life.”
24) Elliott Smith – Between the Bars
“People you’ve been before that you
Don’t want around anymore
That push and shove and won’t bend to your will
I’ll keep them still”
Despite the romantic tone to this song, this song is actually about addiction. According to the CDC, excessive drinking in the United States cost us $249 billion in 2010 and currently one in 10 deaths among working-age adults age 20-64 is due to excessive alcohol use. Needless to say, alcohol is an easy and convenient crutch for many people, demonstrating the depth of emotional poverty in the United States. Elliott Smith unfortunately lost the battle to alcoholism in 2003, so this song is a gentle reminder of the sting of alcoholism. If you suffer from alcoholism, you are not alone, and that there are very doable avenues for recovery.
25) Sarah McLachlan – In the Arms of An Angel
“In the arms of the angel
Fly away from here
From this dark, cold hotel room
And the endlessness that you fear
You are pulled from the wreckage
Of your silent reverie
You’re in the arms of the angel
May you find some comfort here”
Believe it or not, I am being totally serious adding this song to the list. Because of the ASPCA commercials like the one above, we all think of sad, abused animals when we hear this song. For anyone who has lost a pet or has a heart for neglected pets.
Also, if you will consider a liberal interpretation with me, reread the lyrics of this song and be reminded that angels are by our sides to help us during troubling times. Be comforted remembering that regardless of however difficult life feels, the feelings are temporary and they too shall pass. It is my hope that you can find someone you trust to confide in and continue to pray! You are not alone.