Taylor Swift, grief therapist? How my late husband's Swiftie legacy brings our family comfort

My husband bonded with our daughters over her music. Now that he's gone, I've found solace in her work, too

Published April 23, 2024 12:30PM (EDT)

Taylor Swift performs onstage during the Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour at Lincoln Financial Field on May 12, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Lisa Lake/TAS23/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management)
Taylor Swift performs onstage during the Taylor Swift | The Eras Tour at Lincoln Financial Field on May 12, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Lisa Lake/TAS23/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management)

When my husband was alive, he listened to Taylor Swift with our daughters. They were discovering her together around the 2016 election, and I preferred Katy Perry’s fuller vocals and willingness to take a political stance. Taylor seemed only to sing about boys.

Ian, who was more of a music connoisseur than I, informed me that he’d listened to Taylor’s entire catalog driving our oldest to school each day, and not only did she have more songs, she largely wrote them herself and played guitar. Our 9-year-old feminist’s favorite song was “We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together.”

I was skeptical but in spite of myself, I kept skipping to “Stay Stay Stay,” right after “Never Ever Ever” on "Red," because it reminded me of Ian and our relationship — despite the muddling hardships of middle-aged marriage, we always chose to stay. It tickled me that 22-year-old Taylor had written, “Before you, I'd only dated self-indulgent takers.” How many narcissists could she have dated in her short lifetime?

When Taylor came to nearby Philadelphia in 2018 and Ian wanted to buy our daughters premium seats, I balked. Why ruin all future concerts for a 10- and 7-year-old? I figured they should sit in the wet grass in general admission like we had for our first shows.

We compromised on second best. The girls were ecstatic in their own ways: our younger one dancing in the aisles, while our oldest stayed seated and sang quietly along, intently studying Taylor and how everything worked together on stage.

I was struck by how well Taylor understood her audience and how well she tailored — pun intended — her performance to the young girls filling the stands. While some artists might be disappointed to have a following of preteens, Taylor seemed to relish it.

As it turned out, it was our last normal Friday as a family of four. We returned home to Baltimore, where the following week, Ian was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.

While he was in treatment, he worked on introducing the girls to a deeper well of music—Neil Young, Yo La Tengo, Belle and Sebastian, Willie Nelson—but their favorite was “Woman” by Ke$ha, with the hard-to-forget lyric, “I’m a motherf**king woman.”

When he died 10 months later, “I’m a motherfu**ing woman” stuck. I played Ke$ha’s "Rainbow" album over and over on a road trip to Massachusetts and Maine that summer, eventually adding in P!nk and Adele, although we all agreed that Adele made us melancholy. I wanted the girls to have strong female role models.

After getting my heart bruised by a friend I had hoped would be more, I discovered that "Red" was my favorite Taylor album.

Missing the chatter and clatter of the office during the pandemic nearly a year after that, I told Alexa to “play Taylor Swift’s latest album” — I didn’t even know it was called "Lover" — as background music.

I tried my former go-to artists, but it was too easy to get overly introspective sitting alone in my room while I tried to work. Taylor’s upbeat-sounding songs, which didn’t demand too much from me, turned out to be the perfect pandemic soundtrack.

I loved the playful optimism of “Lover” and “Paper Rings.” And when I really listened to the lyrics to “Soon You’ll Get Better” — about Taylor’s mom’s struggle with cancer — I was stopped in my tracks. So many lines in that song hit home, but “I'll paint the kitchen neon, I'll brighten up the sky/I know I'll never get it, there's not a day that I won't try” captured the utter helplessness of being a caregiver.

That summer, “Miss Americana” came out on Netflix, and though my 13-year-old thought she had outgrown her, we all emerged from the documentary impressed with Taylor’s newfound feminism, perception — and depth. I liked what she had to say about her struggles with body image and how she navigated finally opening up about her politics.

After getting my heart bruised by a friend I had hoped would be more, I discovered that "Red" was my favorite Taylor album. Not just “Stay Stay Stay” but especially “Treacherous,” which reminded me of how scary — and risky — falling in love again can feel.

It turns out that Taylor gets her heart broken a lot. And even at 22, she possessed a sageness about relationships.

In Susan Cain’s "Bittersweet," she talks about what draws us to sad music over happy music.

“People whose favorite songs are happy listen to them about 175 times on average,” she reports. “But those who favor ‘bittersweet’ songs listen to them almost 800 times, according to a study by University of Michigan professors Fred Conrad and Jason Corey, and they report a ‘deeper connection’ to the music than those whose favorites made them happy.”

“They tell researchers that they associate sad songs with profound beauty, deep connection, transcendence, nostalgia and common humanity — the so-called sublime emotions,” Cain writes.

Similarly, I associated Taylor’s music with my lost friendship and my missing husband and my newly wild hormones.

When I felt like I was coming out of my skin as the never-ending pandemic raged on in the winter of 2021, I took long, freezing nightly walks with my reluctant Shih Tzu and listened to the whole "Red" album in order. I did the same thing as I started writing down my experience with cancer and grief for an hour each night. During the day I told Alexa to “shuffle songs by Taylor Swift,” switching over to "Red" at 5 p.m. to write.

At the same time, I was going through a “red” phase of my own, trying to brighten up my widowhood with first a cheerful red coat, and as the seasons progressed, red strappy sandals and three red bathing suits — culminating in a sporty red car.

My daughters watched this transformation with fascination, not having the words for “midlife crisis.”

"Red (Taylor’s Version)" came out two years after Ian’s death, and my daughters and I cheered.

When she released "Fearless (Taylor’s Version)," my 25-year-old co-worker and I bonded, not just over our love for Taylor’s music but also her project to rerecord all her old songs so that she would own them outright. We loved the example she was setting for young artists, particularly women.

"Red (Taylor’s Version)" came out two years after Ian’s death, and my daughters and I cheered. My 14-year-old, who once considered herself too cool to watch Taylor’s documentary, asked me to go on long drives. We drove north on I-83 in Maryland toward the Pennsylvania border and dissected every song.

So when presale tickets for Taylor’s Eras tour came out on what would have been Ian’s 51st birthday, it seemed fated that we would get a code. Except fate, as my daughters and I know — I might say as we know all too well — doesn’t work like that. I put a plea on Facebook and after hours of effort, a friend found us just two tickets to the Philadelphia show, where we’d first seen Taylor with Ian.

As the date grew closer (it would be in May, just days before the fourth anniversary of Ian’s death) I purchased three tickets from a third-party reseller so we could all go. To appease my guilt at spending this much money on concert tickets — an amount that would make Ian blush, despite his desire to get them front-row seats the first time around — I decided to pay the original two forward. I gave them to a friend, and when she got sick and couldn’t go, she passed them on to two thrilled teenage girls.

On that perfect-weather night in May, we danced and swayed with the nearly all-female audience as Taylor gracefully — and when she couldn’t pull off graceful, then humorously self-deprecatingly — moved through her eras. That July would mark four years since we’d seen her as a family of four, and I wondered at how much we had all changed.

My oldest, the introspective one who’d stayed in her seat for the first concert, never left her feet. At almost 16, she was just beginning to emerge from a long depression that started when her dad was diagnosed with cancer, compounded by the pandemic and her ADHD, which made getting caught up difficult. My younger daughter, the extrovert in a family of introverts, planned her outfit with care, choosing to rep the "1989" era. She wore a white mini skirt, a sparkly white boa, and a powder blue halter top with matching cowboy boots. At nearly 13, she was the one who occasionally sat down with me to rest her feet.

I tried unsuccessfully to hold back tears as Taylor entered the stage at exactly 8 p.m. to wild cheers from the audience, my own children and to my surprise, myself. I marveled at this near-sacred space Taylor represented for her fans and our family, and at how far we’d come since the early days of Ian’s death — when my daughters could hardly stand to be in the same room together and I would sometimes shout at them until my throat was hoarse. When my older girl disappeared into her room for long hours and my younger one slept with me every night, worried about letting me out her sight. Here we were, arms linked, experiencing this hallowed moment together.

"The Tortured Poets Department" dropped this Friday, and we spent the weekend listening, looking for clues about Taylor’s life, and ultimately our own. Though it’s an album devoted to the grief of busted romance, we see ourselves in it too. In the “manuscript” of Taylor’s life, she — like us — has learned to “do it with a broken heart.” And, she seems to be saying, it hasn’t been all bad.

As my now teenage daughters and I move into our own unknown and increasingly separate eras, we’ve reached a place not unlike “Florida!!!”: “Well, me and my ghosts, wе had a hell of a time/ Yes, I'm haunted, but I'm feeling just fine.” We know there will be inevitable heartbreak and grief along the way — but also touchdowns and comebacks and even the “alchemy” of new love. Throughout Taylor’s eras and our own, there is room for it all: joy, adventure, pain, wanting, rebirth. The best is yet to be written.

By Molly Saint-James

Molly Saint-James is a former marketer and current writer and solo-parent living in Baltimore, Maryland. She is working on a memoir about middle-aged marriage and grief (and yes, Taylor Swift).

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