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Three writers recall their special tear-jerking tunes

Published 02/04/2016

Adele, with Someone Like You; Edith Piaf’s Je Ne Regrette Rien; Roberta Flack’s The Closer I Get To You and Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now
Adele, with Someone Like You; Edith Piaf’s Je Ne Regrette Rien; Roberta Flack’s The Closer I Get To You and Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now
Edith Piaf’s Je Ne Regrette Rien
Roberta Flack’s The Closer I Get To You
Chicago’s If You Leave Me Now

We've all suffered grief at some time in our lives, be it the death of a loved one, the break-up of a relationship or the myriad of events in our lives that leave us bereft.

One therapy that really seems to work is listening to sad songs, according to new university research.

Academics at De Montford University found that those tear-jerkers work much more effectively than happy tunes in helping people when they are at their lowest ebb.

Artists such as pop sensation Adele and rock band Muse were rated highly by those who took part in the study.

Three writers tell us about the songs that have a special meaning for them and how just listening to them can lift the black clouds.

Alex Kane: 'Over the Rainbow by a Hawaiian singer got us through those days after a miscarriage'

Before Lilah-Liberty was born in October 2009, we had four miscarriages. Each of them was awful: uniquely awful. All the hopes and love that are part and parcel of a pregnancy are just dashed in one fell, brutal, inexplicable swoop. There are no words of comfort. Hugs don't make the pain go away. The "keep trying" reassurance of consultants falls on stopped ears. Each one of those losses lives with you forever. Each one of them was my child.

The hardest loss was Conan, the second miscarriage. He was 17 weeks. We were given his body in a box not much bigger than a shoebox, with a little blanket over him. We cremated him at Roselawn and scattered his ashes a few days later on the front lawn of Stormont.

What got us through those days was the Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's version of Over The Rainbow. It's always been a favourite song of mine anyway, but his gentle voice and ukulele accompaniment just reached in and touched me at that particular moment. I'm an atheist, so I had no expectation of Conan going to Heaven: yet part of me just needed to know that maybe, just maybe, there was a special place somewhere in the universe for him. Yes, that sounds trite -and maybe it really is - but it got me through then and it got me through the next two miscarriages. I still cry when I hear it.

I also have what I describe as my "dark place'" It goes back to my time in the orphanage and all of the fears and trauma that still haunt me from that time - even though it was over 50 years ago. I still have the nightmares. I still whimper and scream. I still have to be shaken awake to help me escape from the unseen horror behind a door that never opens and a voice that repeats a line I have never been able to make sense of.

There are mornings when I wake and I can feel the darkness and depression wrapped around me like a straitjacket. Everything looks bad. Everything I have to do feels like a chore. The smallest things annoy the hell out of me. And my coping mechanism for all of this is Bring Me Sunshine by Morcambe and Wise. It's a brilliant song. Short, yet packed with simple truths about life. It was the first song I sang to Lilah-Liberty when I held her in my arms when she was just a few minutes old. There's hardly a night goes past when we don't sing it to each other just before she falls asleep. The song works because it's impossible to hear it (even if you know nothing about Morecambe and Wise) without breaking into a smile.

Both these songs are simple, uncomplicated songs. They're not trying to be profound. They're not setting out to change anything. Yet they both hint at a better, happier, less brutal world. They weren't written to lessen depression or make sense of miscarriage and loss: but that's what both of them have done for me. They make my life a little easier on some very difficult days and you can't really ask for much more from a song than that.

Frances Burscough: 'I got sucked into my big sister's misery by default, listening to If You Leave Me Now'

One of my favourite chapters from one of my favourite books is the one where angst-ridden Rob in High Fidelity lists his top break-up songs of all time. It struck a chord with me because I've been there and done that in the past (we all have): associating a specific song with a specific heartbreak and then playing it to death.

So, as a nod to angst-ridden Rob, here is my own top five break-up songs list:

My first memory of sad song therapy was when I was about 10 in the Seventies. I shared a room at the time with my big sister and she broke up with her first boyfriend. Although I had never met him, I got sucked into her misery by default. She cried me a river for a solid fortnight, by which time I was pretty much bereft, too. In that case it was Chicago's mournful classic "If You Leave Me Now/ You'll take away the biggest part of me/ Wooooo-woooo-oooooh-ohhhh No Baby please don't go ..."

By 1980, however, it was my turn to grieve. I was 16. I was on holiday on a cruise when I met and fell in love with a Muslim boy called Habib. It wasn't just a holiday romance, it was lasting, genuine and true. We were completely crazy for each other. I knew it was mutual when a month later he sent me a "mix-tape" in the post - a cassette of all the songs they had played the night when we first met.

But "our song" - and the one I turned to when his parents intervened and he was sent away back to the home country of Pakistan for a hastily arranged marriage - was a beautiful reggae version of a Roberta Flack song they'd played incessantly that summer. The Closer I Get To You. It was the chorus that ultimately broke my heart and which still brings a tear to my eye even now: "Over and over again/ I tried to tell myself that we/ Could never be more than friends/ And all the while inside I knew it was real/ The way you make me feel ..."

It was the mid-Eighties and I was a student in Manchester studying fashion design.

I made friends with a wonderful person called Christy who lived next door and who had a secret life as an outrageous drag queen. He never officially "came out". Christy was obsessed with the songs of Edith Piaf and I used to watch, enthralled, as he performed for me a perfect lip-synched impression of the little French sparrow's most dramatic songs.

Sadly he died of an overdose and at his funeral they played this: "Non, rien de rien/ Non, je ne regrette rien." To this day, the song still makes me cry.

Fast forward a couple of decades; one marriage, two kids and one divorce later. During that period I met Joe, who was from Virginia, USA. We had a wonderful, exciting, fun and crazy year, but one of the high points was going to a music festival together in Baltimore to see the band Puddle of Mudd. As the sun set behind the stage they sang their greatest song, Blurry with its poignant chorus: "I Wonder what you're doing/ Imagine where you are/ There's oceans in between us/ but that's not very far ..." It became our song for a while and Joe even had the words engraved on a bracelet for my birthday later that year. It didn't work out in the end, but the song still takes me back.

Finally, a song that isn't about a boyfriend, or even a friend. It reminds me of my son Finn. He's an actor and last year he played the character of Boxer, the work horse, in a stage adaptation of Animal Farm at the Studio Theatre in Bangor. But the scene where Boxer dies was a real tear-jerker, especially when the U2 song One pipes in to accompany his sad demise. The audience was in tears every night and so was I.

Oh my god, excuse me while I find a hankie ...

Una Brankin: 'There wasn't a dry eye in the church after I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen had been sung'

"I'll take you home again Kathleen across the ocean wild and wide to where your heart has ever been since first you were my bonny bride."

It's widely mistaken as an Irish ballad but, as I discovered recently, I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen was written by a German-American, Thomas P Westendorf for his wife, in the late 1800s.

Well over a century on, there wasn't a dry eye in the church when it was sung at the end of my auntie Kathleen's funeral service, as her coffin was carried down the aisle for burial in the graveyard at Lylo, Portadown. Even grown men cried.

Auntie Ka was a popular character, a great raconteur and a good listener. I got to know her better towards the end of her 82 years and I was among those at her bedside when she died.

I don't have a recording of I'll Take You Home Again, but I've heard the Slim Whitman (above) version on the radio several times since Auntie Ka died and it has always brought back memories of her and of the warmth of the feelings evoked on the day of her funeral.

I do believe some types of music - nosebleed death metal being a notable exception -have quasi-healing qualities. Particularly classical music. I am transported heavenwards in my mind every time I hear Visi d'Arte from Puccini's Tosca, or Debussy's Clair de Lune.

The Humming Chorus from Madame Butterfly has the more soothing effect on me than a long soak in the bath and Musetta's Waltz from La Boheme makes me forget about absolutely everything else for the two minutes, or so, of its duration.

I'm lucky not to have suffered the bereavement of an immediate family member yet, but I know I'd turn, first, to classical composers in the event - although another favourite, Barber's Adagio for strings, would be far too melancholic under the circumstances.

I have experienced a profound sense of loss following a failed romance, however. The soundtrack to that period of my life included Alanis Morrisette's Jagged Little Pill and Nirvana's Nevermind, which made me feel energised and helped strengthen my resolve to get over the heartbreak.

Prince and The Smiths always cheered me up, too. Contrary to perceptions of Morrissey as the Pope of Mope, he's a witty lyricist (as is Prince) and Johnny Marr's jangly guitars are a pure tonic.

For me, the most uplifting contemporary music of all, though, comes courtesy of Michael Jackson. The vast majority of tracks on Off The Wall and Thriller are absolutely sublime pop, the musical equivalent of the finest champagne.

Roll on three decades and Pharrell Williams matched Jacko and producer Quincy Jones' sparkling creativity with Happy, one of the most irresistibly catchy tunes ever.

It may not seem appropriate, but that's one I wouldn't switch off, it if came on the radio, in my most sorrowful hour. That, and:

"So I will take you back Kathleen to where your heart will feel no pain.

"And when the fields are fresh and green I will take you to your home again."

Kerry McKittrick talks to local celebs about the songs that have helped them cope

Tracey Hall (48) is the director of the Belfast Style Academy. She lives in Hillsborough with her husband, Stefan. She says:

My granny, Hilda Hall, passed away on St Patrick's Day 10 years ago this year. It was very sudden - she hadn't been ill and she died in her sleep aged 89. It was a really emotional time as my sister was pregnant with her first child so granny didn't get to meet her first great-grandchild.

She was very well the day before and had phoned me the night before she died - we spoke every single night. I was asleep on the sofa and was a bit grumpy with her over the phone. I told her I would call her tomorrow. I always remember that.

I carried granny's coffin and we'd played You Raise Me Up at her funeral which is the song the reminds me of her the most now. The words seemed really appropriate - granny was a Christian so she knew where she was going so her funeral was as much of a celebration of her life as we could make it.

That song now reminds me of her and I actually can't really listen to it the whole way through. If I hear any version of it then I have to turn it off unless I feel like a good cry and in that case I'll let it play."

Alex Maskey (64) is a Sinn Fein MLA for South Belfast. He is married to Liz and has two sons, Niall (36) and Sean (33). He says:

The majority of the music I listen to moves me. Both of my parents have passed away and both of them loved to sing. My mother would sing Love Letters In The Sand - it's not a song you hear very often these days, but it's a song that reminds me of the good times and the bad times with my mother.

My father sang the song Autumn Leaves - that can be a bit of a tearjerker but in a happy way because again it brings me back to good memories.

I personally find music is uplifting. Even if you listen to a sad song at a sad time it can still be a very powerful reminder for you and eventually good memories will come out of that.

The fact that you have all of those good memories about someone you've lost is a cause to be happy in itself."

Pete Snodden is a Cool FM DJ and lives in Bangor with his wife, Julia, and their daughters, Ivanna (5) and Elayna (2). He says:

Dad died about 18 months ago. I would never have put him down as a huge music fan but since he passed away I've realised just how much he's influenced my music taste. I realise how many artists of his generation I know and like and that's because of him. I find myself listening to Phil Collins, the Bee Gees, Lionel Ritchie - people I wouldn't have known growing up but they've been introduced to me by my dad.

I remember going to France as a kid in the car with the caravan and we drove hundreds of miles with music playing so that's where the influence would have come from. Listening to certain songs reminds me of certain times -holidays, Christmases and all the other good times."

Jo-Anne Dobson (48) is a UUP MLA. She and her husband, John, live on their farm in Waringstown. They have two sons, Elliott (24) and Mark (21). She says:

Louise Peacock, my friend, passed away a few weeks ago after a long struggle with breast cancer. There's a particular song that reminds me of her and that's Hero by Enrique Iglesias - when I hear that one it makes me sad to think of her but it makes me smile at the same time as I know it's a favourite song of hers.

The other song that makes me think of Louise is You Raise Me Up and it gives me goosebumps. It makes me sad but make me think of her at the same time.

These songs are bittersweet - my friend and I always think of Louise when we hear Hero as so fought so bravely against her illness for such a long time. When you hear the songs you have a moment but then you think of all the positive times and all the good times you had together.

You can't help but think about certain people when you hear certain songs and I think that's a good thing. When I hear Hero I think perhaps I should turn it off but then I ended up turning it up louder because it makes me think of Louise and her fight. I sing along and I feel better for it afterwards. It's therapeutic for you to remember."

Lynda Bryans (52) is married to UUP leader and former broadcaster Mike Nesbitt (58). After a successful career in TV, Lynda balances running media production company Take I Take II with her husband, lecturing at the Belfast Metropolitan College and being mum to PJ (20), and Christopher (18). She says:

I'm quite fortunate in that I have my close family so most of the people I have lost have been work colleagues.

There is a song that reminds me of a very difficult time in my life and about a person who really helped me. It always makes me wonder where I would be if that person hadn't been there.

The song is Because You Loved Me by Celine Dion.

It harks back to 20 years ago. I had clinical depression and was in the hospital having just given birth to my oldest, PJ and I felt like I wanted to die. I was in utter turmoil and if my husband Michael hadn't been there I would have been admitted to a psychiatric unit. They were even offered to have PJ put into foster care so that Mike wouldn't have to care for the child on his own.

I don't know how things would have turned out but Michael flatly refused - he wouldn't separate me and my child.

At the time I was considered a danger to myself and as I was in the Royal Maternity Hospital the midwives didn't have the time to keep an I on my all the time. The medical professional he was talking to said they couldn't take the chance to leave me there.

Michael fought for a second opinion and then spent all night with me for the next three nights. He sat in a horrible hospital chair and looked after PJ when he cried. The only time he left my side was during breakfast when he went for a shower and a shave.

The lyrics of that song are so appropriate for what he did for me in that time: 'you were my voice when I couldn't speak, you lifted me up when I couldn't reach'.

If I need a good cry I go and look up those words and have a good weep.

I can see how songs like that help you to process major life changes."

Belfast Telegraph

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