I'm a Widow. Here Are 3 Things Taylor Swift Gets Right About Grief on 'Tortured Poets'

We're both working through some stuff

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Taylor Swift just released her new album, The Tortured Poets Department, a collection of songs focused on love and loss. I’m only a “gentle Swiftie,” so I should admit up front there are whole days I spend without thinking of the megastar. But when her new album was promoted by referencing the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—I remembered how I’d learned all about them during the time my late husband was battling cancer. I promised myself I’d listen to Taylor’s album the second it dropped, to see if she and I aligned on what real grief feels like. Here’s what I came away with.

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Taylor Swift grief album review: Tortured Poets album cover
Taylor Swift

First, before we get to the death part, let’s look at a birth. Namely, the gestation of the record. Over the past two years, the tireless pop star has been crafting this 16+ song collection while putting together a global megatour so successful, it sparked everything from fit inspo to a blockbuster movie to a new billionaire. At the same time, Taylor ended her longtime relationship with a movie star lover before getting serious with a football star boyfriend. So how is it, with all this going on, she had space to mourn her lost love? Fans knew the album would be about grief, since the week before the album dropped, she grouped a series of playlists according to the famous stages of death and grief named by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Turns out, Taylor’s experience of loss is a lot different from what you might think a broken-hearted person acts and feels like—and that’s why these three elements of her album really hit home with me.

1. There’s a Lot of Anger

Taylor is super mad in a lot of these songs, and I’m so here for it. While her image as America’s wholesome girl next door is fading as she gets older, until this album I’ve preferred her sweet ballads of the Folklore era to the bad-girl bangers of Reputation. (However, Reputation’s spicy, bitter songs really landed live at the Eras Tour.) Now, after listening to Tortured Poets songs including Down Bad, The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived and Who’s Afraid of Little Old Me?, I’m amped for the latest Angry Era of Taylor. And I can attest that there’s just no way not to be damn angry when you’re grieving the loss of a love, or a life or both. In my experience, I had to really experience the irrational, sometimes outsized and usually unattractive anger that came with being a widow, in order to be able to reach some kind of acceptance. It sounds like that’s what Taylor’s doing here, too—and since anger and acceptance are both stages of grief, that brings us to the album’s next great insight.

2. The Stages of Grief Shuffle Like Cards

While TikTok might represent the stages of grief as occurring in sequence—that’s denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—Tortured Poets switches from one to another reaction, then back again, sometimes in a single song. That’s closer to Kübler-Ross’s original definition of grief stages as elements a person experiences, rather than a graduate degree to work your way upward toward. Sure, I maybe spent more time in the depression stage than it sounds like Taylor did; she alternatively describes wasting so much of her youth in denial, for instance in the track “So Long, London.” And the way the album soars with acceptance in the penultimate “LOML” then dips back into anger for the album closer “Clara Bow” illustrates how, sometimes, grief swerves you back into a stage you thought you were done with. Throughout, images of men’s suits, ex-lovers’ possessions popping up in drawers, a tattooed arm are powerful totems that incite a lot of contradictory feelings in Taylor’s world. And mine, too.

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What this album says is that, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald (now, there's a tortured poet for you), the test of a first-rate emotional intelligence is to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time.

3. Words Alone Fail

A music editor once told me that he takes out lyrics whenever he can when writers file their album reviews. That’s because lyrics don’t land the same way when you read them as when you hear them. Without the music, it’s not the same, he explained. That was certainly my experience of reading the lyrics to Tortured Poets the day before the album dropped. Reading phrases like “Now I’m down bad, crying at the gym” and “The lights refract sequin stars off her silhouette every night” without the earworm hooks and emphasized syllable falls flat. All I was left with were facts and speculation. Reports such as: in April 2023, Taylor Swift ended her 6-year relationship with actor Joe Alwyn. (A song entitled “So Long, London” talks about leaving that city, where Taylor lived with Alwyn.) In May, the singer-songwriter was seen publicly with rumored love interest, musician Matty Healy. (The song “I Can Fix Him (No Really I Can)” mentions a bad boy in a cloud of smoke; Swifties speculated this character was based on the hard-partying Healy.) Finally, in August, she was first spotted publicly with Travis Kelce.

For years, Taylor has been criticized publicly for not only writing song cycles about her boyfriends, but about cycling through the boyfriends themselves. I’m sure now that Taylor seems happy with her Super Bowl champ football star, some onlookers will wonder if she ever even felt that strongly about her past boyfriends. I might even say that too, if I hadn’t fallen in love not long after my husband died. Listen closely, and you can hear the whisper network: She didn’t feel her feelings (or she wouldn’t have moved on so fast). Or perhaps she didn’t really have deep feelings at all for her lost love, right? Nope, that’s wrong. What this album says is that, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald (now, there’s a tortured poet for you), the test of a first-rate emotional intelligence is to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time. You can love someone, be really mad at that someone and miss the hell out of that someone. Even, in the case of a couple optimistic songs on the album, be in love with a new someone…all at the same time.

Anyway, that’s my experience of love, loss and Taylor Swift's The Tortured Poets Department. Words alone fail—listen yourself and you’ll see.

dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...