Drawing on their musical and clinical palliative care training, music-thanatologists use harp and voice to address physical, emotional and spiritual suffering at the end of life. Using music prescriptively, they vary the tempo and tone of music to respond to changes occurring in a patient's body, like a slowing of pulse and breathing, in the final hours of life. During their visits — music vigils — they alternate sound and silence to help patients and loved ones relax and rest.
In my work as a music-thanatologist, there are certain vigils that stand out in such a way that leave me feeling especially grateful for what we are able to offer patients and families at this most critical and sacred time of their lives. At these times, I feel that I am at the right place at the right time and I am grateful for the deep connections made. The following narrative is from one of those vigils:
There are many family members present when I arrive at Jason’s home: his wife, Kim, two daughters Lucy and Naomi, his son-in-law and a baby. The kitchen is abuzz with conversation and planning. The sound of a television is coming from Jason’s room.
When it is time for me to enter the small, dimly lit room, Jason’s JourneyCare nurse is measuring his heart rate and oxygen levels, which are regular. Jason is lying on his back, supported with pillows and slightly turned toward his left side. His brow is smooth, his eyes are closed. He does not rouse to speech or touch. By now, only Kim and their two daughters remain in the room.
It’s a touchy situation. You love your aging parents and want to do what’s best for them. You know they should be planning for their end-of-life care and putting their wishes into writing. If they would complete an advance directive, you’d be sure they will receive the care they want, under any circumstances, even when they may not be able to speak for themselves.
For massage therapists who care for hospice patients, the work we do is full of ongoing lessons and gifts. I’m continually reminded what a privilege it is to meet and participate in some small way in the lives of our patients — such diverse, interesting, wonderful, ordinary and extraordinary people. There is a bond that develops with physical touch through the understanding that as their massage therapist, I am there to make them feel better. They guide me to the best way to help them and I am there to listen and respond.
I’ve had the honor of working with many patients with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Due to the challenges that befall these patients, massage is a service that often makes good sense. When their muscles stop working as they once did, we can help stretch and massage those muscles to make them feel better for a little while. One such patient gave me delightful gifts of imagination and laughter, and lessons about an unfailing positive attitude and outlook that I will never forget.
I think this really is the most special time of the year, particularly because of the holiday music! Music and singing have been part of my life since the sixth grade, when I became involved in the school choir at the urging of my wonderful music teacher. Singing plays such an important role during the holidays and it has some amazing effects on our wellness.
Holiday music inspires us to raise our voices and creates a fun sense of camaraderie when we gather spontaneously around a piano to belt out “Jingle Bells,” “Over the River and Through the Wood,” or any other favorite carols. Those who routinely sing together in a group, as when part of a chorus, know it creates a tight social bond as every voice works together to create a harmonious sound. (Shout out to the JourneyCare Choir, which includes staff members from throughout our agency!) Even singing in your car to favorite holiday songs on the radio can be uplifting!