Music for Processing Grief

Last week, I attended a mental health awareness event called #BeWell at Samsung 837 in Chelsea, NYC. I RSVP-ed knowing little about the event and its presenters – just that Dr. Jess, the main speaker, is a young, Black, female psychiatrist, and that I get excited about representation of all of those traits in the medical field. I couldn’t wait to learn more about her. I hoped to come back to the blog with more insight about the importance of clicking with your therapist, and the related challenges you face when you come from one or more marginalized groups. Because so many mental health professionals are older white males, it can be hard for people of other social groups to find a professional with whom they feel totally comfortable.

Dr. Jess did touch on this a little bit – how in the Black community, there is such a stigma about seeing a therapist or giving attention to your mental wellbeing. Dr. Jess, more formally Dr. Jessica Clemons, is currently completing her psychiatry residency at NYU, and because she is making such a push to put mental wellness in the spotlight for young people (especially people of color), she is already making an impact in important ways. I was thrilled to see so many young Black women in the audience, chatting excitedly about their career dreams in counseling and therapy, noting Dr. Jess as an inspiration. The way I see it, more varied cultural backgrounds amongst medical professionals means more people feeling comfortable reaching out and getting attention for their mental health.

What I did not expect was that I would hear Dr. Jess and her guest, rapper/musician/designer A$AP Ferg, talk at length about the power of using music for coping and mental health. As I am a music therapist, this was, of course, right up my alley! I was so impressed to hear an accomplished medical professional and pro musician speak about music’s healing potential, beyond relaxation and distraction.

Photo by Myesha Evon

When Dr. Jess first sat down with A$AP Ferg, she asked the audience members to respect a short list of agreements about the experience. Among these was this: although we may get something therapeutic out of this, it is not therapy. The conversation she had with Ferg might have been similar to how she would have conducted a therapy session with him, but some important points disqualified it as actual therapy – a huge one, the fact that the conversation was happening in front of dozens of people. I was so happy to hear her make a big deal of making the distinction. I think she is setting a great example for the rest of us mental health professionals by not being afraid to correct misconceptions like this.

Dr. Jess asked Ferg to talk at length about the deaths of loved ones, including those of his girlfriend and father. He talked a lot about ways of grieving, and this is when music came up.

Photo by Steve Crookson

Ferg noted that he felt as though his coping still isn’t done. “I took so long to grieve,” he said. “I wasn’t connected.” When he didn’t cry at his girlfriend’s funeral, he said he “knew something wasn’t right … I had to put myself in a position to grieve again.”

He partially connected his emotional block to the fact that he “wasn’t listening to music” for almost a year, subconsciously trying to shield himself from feeling.

Dr. Jess agreed that music is important and powerful in this way, noting that you can turn on certain music to “feel sadness if you can’t access it” and that this can be so helpful in working through pain.

Dr. Jess praised Ferg for having the strength to notice he needed to grieve, and asked if he had always been the type of person who was curious and mature about emotional expression. He responded,

“That’s why I’m successful in music, because I kind of know what people want to hear. Sonically, but I know what conversations people want to hear too.”

It was so refreshing to hear them connect mental health to music in this way. When I bring up music therapy, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, people often respond with something like, “Oh yes, music is so relaxing” or “makes you feel good,” which can feel dismissive. This doesn’t even begin to cover it. Dr. Jess and Ferg both have huge and growing platforms, and hearing them both give a different perspective about music’s power was inspiring for me. I feel as though this means we are heading in the right direction. They are advocates of the field music therapy, even if they don’t quite know it yet!

Dr. Jess closed the talk by noting several resources for finding mental health help, including ThriveNYC where you can learn about mental health first aid, and NYC Well where you can get connected with crisis counseling 24/7.

“Whatever happens to you, you are not your pain,” she told us all, before sending us back into the real world. “You are love.”

To learn more about Dr. Jess and her work in mental health advocacy, visit her website, and follow her on Instagram.

For more information about how music is related to emotional processing and access, check out this scholarly article about the brain as it processes music.

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