Music in hospice – an unbroken connection

Posted by Katie Lahiff, Music-Thanatologist

Music in hospice – an unbroken connection

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.

After the nurses and Certified Nursing Assistant leave, I position myself with my harp near the foot of Jason's bed on his left side. His daughter Lucy is standing at the same side near his head, holding his hand and stroking his forehead. Kim is standing by his right side. The environment is now quiet, the TV having been turned off, the nursing care complete.

My music begins with a gentle lullaby paced to follow Jason's respirations. Lucy sits on the couch near her father's bed but soon gets up to leave, saying that she doesn't want to cry. Kim cries softly, remaining by her husband's side. I create music to support her expressions of emotion by weaving themes with more minor harmonies into the suite. Their other daughter Naomi comes into the room briefly and hands tissues to her mother. The second suite includes a melody from a spiritual, honoring Jason’s spiritual culture, and a theme containing lyrics of blessings of peace and love.

Jason has not stirred. Lucy and Naomi come back into the room after the second suite. Lucy comments that she was both crying and wanting to skip through a field of tulips with the music. I offer more music, and Kim agrees. Both daughters remain in the room for the final suite.

Toward the end of the suite, Jason takes a deep breath and opens his eyes. Kim touches his arm and talks to him about the music. Lucy notices that he is looking at me. I rise from my chair to come closer to him and meet his unwavering gaze. We remain in silent eye contact for several seconds. Lucy shares that this is the longest he has had his eyes open for quite some time. In this moment, I remember that Kim previously told me that Jason now communicates with his eyes and I am aware of this sacred interaction.

Kim asks me if I am a minister with a church, but I replay that that I am connected with a yoga temple and lead music there.

“How did you know?” I ask.

“I felt the spiritual connection,” Kim said.

I told her that I felt it, too, and that music-thanatology has a strong spiritual component.

After I say goodbye to Jason, Kim accompanies me to the living room and shares that – when their social worker suggested a music vigil – she had no idea it would be like this.

“But,” she adds, “it would be impossible to describe this.”

At JourneyCare, we elevate care to its most advanced level with Integrative Therapies. Learn more about them.

Note: Names have been changed. 

Comments (4)

  • Eugene B. Rice

    12 January 2019 at 02:22 | #

    I've always belived music is the best therapy .


  • AnnMarie Pulkkila

    15 January 2019 at 16:27 | #

    I first experienced music thanatology as a hospice liaison at Frodert Medical center in Milwaukee. Every person at end of life should have this sacred, beautiful service. I was blown away by the person performing the service, the music was utterly amazing and the person changed dramatically moving from visible air hunger to calm, amazing. I am grateful for our music thanatologists and grateful we offer this care...


    • Katie Lahiff

      31 January 2019 at 17:13 | #

      Thank you, Eugene and AnnMarie for your comments. AnnMarie I am glad you were able to witness Music Thanatology in Milwaukee! It is an honor and a privilege to be present with music in this way at the bedside with patients and families. Thanks to JourneyCare seeing the value of our work.


  • Linda Heinen

    30 January 2019 at 19:16 | #

    What an important, meaningful experience this most shurly is for all who receive it. I had no idea such a service was available. I applaud Journey Care for making such a gift available to its patients.


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