A Soundtrack to Grief: a Journey through a Sufjan Stevens Album

by Sarah Pearson

In late 2015, I stumbled upon an album that struck a deep chord inside me. It was Sufjan Stevens’ “Carrie & Lowell,” released in the same year. Written about the death of his mother, the album has been critically acclaimed as Stevens’ finest, albeit one of his simplest, musical releases – which is lofty praise for this prolifically successful folk-rock songwriter. The album is an exquisite musical montage of one person’s raw, gentle surrender to grief. It is disturbingly beautiful.

Many music therapists and other care professionals use musical playlists and song selections as a means of externalizing challenging emotions. An end-of-life care specialist might support a family to make “life review” CD compilations that reflect the highs and lows of a person’s life through different songs. Loved ones might be supported to make playlists that send important messages of closure, like “I love you” or “goodbye.”

And we can all use music to process our own experiences of grief and to make sense of the world. Sometimes, the music that affects us the most is music that has been in our lives for many years. Sometimes, the music chooses us, coming into our lives at the right time and making an impact we weren’t expecting.

Anecdotally, I’ve met many people for whom this Sufjan Stevens album has been the soundtrack to their own grief. For me, this was a rare album that completely consumed me in the weeks after I first heard it. I would put it on casually while getting ready for work one morning, and then end up running late because I couldn’t tear myself away from the stereo. One night I wrote on Facebook how much this album was affecting me, and within minutes people were commenting on similar experiences with it. One person wrote: “I just had to cut myself off [from listening to it] after awhile. It got to be too much.”

This album seems to resonate with people in their grief. And while it will by no means resonate with all people, I will give a brief overview of how this album tells a grief story – how it can serve as an expression of different stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It also is an example of one artist’s vulnerable process of trying to understand a complex relationship with someone who has passed.

The album begins with what seems like an incantation, opening with the words: “spirit of my silence, I can hear you, and I want to be near you, and I don’t know where to begin.” Surrendering oneself to the totality of grief and the great mystery of loss, this opening track sets a tone for a journey that plunges one into grief.

The next track opens up the regret and doubt that can consume a loss. Titled “I Should Have Known Better,” regret and self-doubt drip off each line, deepened by unsettling chord progressions that don’t seem to ever resolve. “I should have wrote a letter, and grieve what I happen to grieve…I never trust my feelings…” The song concludes on a more hopeful musical progression, and the words turn to self-validation and resolve. “Don’t back down…there is nothing left….don’t back down…nothing can be changed...”

Songs that follow dip into nostalgia and memory, regret and sadness, and existential confusion about the relationship that continues to haunt the artist and that has been stopped cold by death. Songs like “All of Me Wants All of You,” “Drawn to the Blood,” and “The Only Thing” speak strongly to stages of grief that can plunge a person into remorse and self-loathing: bargaining, depression, denial. Anger, as has been noted by many critics, is curiously absent from this album.  

In the middle of the album comes the track “Fourth of July,” which describes the moment death itself. The music is pulled back and repetitive, the lyrics both raw and childlike. It captures the breathless feeling of watching a person pass, where time seems to stop and our whole worldview tilts.
In the title track “Carrie and Lowell,” the artist creates a montage of memories of his mother. The lyrics capture the freeze-frame feeling of childhood memories that may haunt us for reasons we still don’t quite understand. The music has an unresolving repetitiveness to it. We get the sense he is trying to piece together some broken story. The song speaks to such a common need in grief to keep telling the same stories over and over again to make sense of what has been lost.

The album arcs towards a place of tentative acceptance in its final three songs. “John My Beloved” is a quiet meditation where the artist seems to be trying to make meaning, asking for grace and surrendering his own brokenness in the face of this loss.  

The final track sounds like the small plea of a child asking to be loved. It is a quietly anguishing conclusion to a personal story of grief that doesn’t ever really find resolve.

Music can haunt us on non-verbal levels, and this is part of its transcendental power. However, I believe as a therapist that some healing can occur when we try to verbally process the transcendent emotional experience we feel with the music. It doesn’t unlock answers or solve any mysteries about the human condition, but it can help integrate our unconscious responses and make them conscious. It can help us be present with our emotions and move through them with greater acceptance.

While no album will ever affect two people the same way, perhaps this album could be a gateway into understanding your own grief, or a means of understanding how other music in your life may speak to you through grief, or other life journeys. So whether this particular album speaks to you the same way or not, there is benefit to understanding and unpacking what music in your life is speaking to you at a deep level.

Are there albums that have accompanied you through challenging times, and that tell a story arc you’ve found meaning through? We’d love to share that story on this blog! Get in touch: [email protected]


Sarah Pearson is a music therapist working in oncology and palliative care in Kitchener, ON . She is the Program Development Coordinator for the Room 217 Foundation and Lead Facilitator of the Music Care Certificate Program.