The time of one’s dying is sacred time. I have been privileged to be with the dying many times, offering prescriptively delivered music with harp and voice to comfort the body, soothe the soul and ease the passage from this life to what is next. I am a music-thanatologist.
Music-thanatology is a subspecialty of palliative care. This unique music offers an atmosphere wherein everyone present may open to experiencing the mystery of death while being nurtured and comforted by the elements of music chosen to support their loved one, always based on the moment-to-moment changes taking place in the patient, as observed by the music-thanatologist whose voice and harp can serve as instruments of grace, often relieving physical, emotional and spiritual pain, anxiety and respiratory distress.
The music-thanatologist is trained to be fully present to whatever is before him or her. Setting aside one’s own concerns, desires and judgments and opening one’s heart and senses to the present moment invites the heart of another to open in safety. This creates the possibility of meeting another on a soul level through music that both supports and allows each person’s individual journey.
Some patients receive one music vigil while others may receive multiple vigils over days, weeks or even months. Each person’s journey is unique. And so, each music vigil is unique. I offer the following stories to share with you a brief glimpse into the mystery of death as I have witnessed it.
The harp music follows, slowing and simplifying as I watch the life force fade from Ima’s body. Her respirations becoming more shallow; pauses between her respirations increasing. Joe, her husband of 72 years, rises from his chair with a concerned look on his face. He embraces her, saying, “Ima, I’m right here. Don’t leave me!” Ima’s respirations resume regularity. The music follows. With her grieving husband at her side, was Ima’s death prolonged? Did she linger to give Joe the additional time he needed? Ima died a week later, soon after Joe was able to tell her that he could let her go.
We do not often know the ways that a music vigil serves patients and loved ones. Sometimes feedback comes unexpectedly. For example:
Seeing me in the hospital hallway with my harp, the daughter of a former patient recognized me from over a year ago. Her father had been in a metabolic coma for several days and family members had gathered from distant places. During the music vigil he opened his eyes and became engaged with his loved ones, as they all expressed their love for him. She said, “I want to tell you what happened after you played for my dad. After you left us to our final 'goodbyes,' dad asked to see his favorite TV program, 'Wheel of Fortune,' which happened to be on at that time, 6:30 pm. At 6:45 p.m., while watching the program, he lifted his arms heavenward and stopped breathing. At 6:59 p.m., his heart stopped just as 'Wheel of Fortune' ended.”
His daughter told me that her father had a beautiful and peaceful death that was a gift to the family. She felt that the music was a catalyst for her father’s final interaction with his loved ones. Perhaps the viewing of “Wheel of Fortune” could be seen as a metaphor for embracing his transition on the “Wheel of Life”?
Soul growth, peace and reconciliation can occur at any moment in a person’s life, even the very last moments. Like a spiritual midwife, the music-thanatologist offers intention-infused music, like a pathway toward a peaceful death that a dying individual can follow.