As a board-certified music therapist for 12 years, I have practiced almost exclusively in hospice care. Music can help the patient reach therapeutic goals, such as decreasing pain, anxiety, and shortness of breath, as well as increasing cognition and meaningful engagement.
I am passionate about my work because of how meaningful therapy is at the end-of-life for the patient and the family, we well as for myself.
To me, dying is about closing the book on your life’s story. Dying brings to the surface questions about our life’s meaning, as well as the overall meaning of life. We can learn so much from those who are dying as we walk through that reflective life-review process with them.
Working with the dying and death does not feel like an “end” to me, but rather a transition of one phase into another — whatever that may mean for each individual.
I felt drawn to music therapy from a young age. My piano teacher was also a music therapist, and I always admired how she used music to enhance the lives of the clients she worked with at a nursing home. She inspired the concept that music does not have to be a race or a competition, but could be used for healing and support. This outlook changed how I played music for myself.
Through physical and emotional turmoil during my adolescent years, I was able to use music to help heal myself.
As I studied music therapy in college, I felt drawn to clients who faced physical and emotional battles.
One particular client at a hospital helped me realize that I could help those facing the end of life. The joy that music brought to this man as he declined felt fulfilling. In a dire time, I was able to use music to bring cheer, positive memories, and an outlet for this man to review his life before it ended.
Today, I work with clients to reflect on one’s life. When we sing or play a song that holds meaning for someone, it automatically transports us to that time and place. We are able to access memories more easily.
Professionally trained music therapists are able to discuss where the patient was at that point in their life, what they were doing, feeling, and experiencing. We use the lyrics of significant songs to better understand why those lyrics give meaning, and share them with loved ones as we reflect.
I work with hospice patients for moments, hours, days, or even years. We find songs to fill hearts, create smiles, or explain feelings in a way that words simply cannot. We help create a music legacy project for the patient to give to their loved ones. Music therapy shared within a family or circle of love can soften grief during tough times.
For most of my patients and families, it is not finding meaning in death that I help them explore, but finding meaning in life.