“Letting Go of This Life,” a review of Music at the End of Life

During the season of All Saints and All Souls last month, Rose Udics of Church of Our Saviour in Arlington, MA reviewed Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain and Preparing the Passage.  I was touched by Rose’s thoughtful reflections on the possibilities of music in end of life care.  I am grateful for her kind support of music-thanatology as well as her willingness to allow me to reprint her review here:

Letting Go of This Life
Though not all of us will become saints whose bodies may be revered, we can be sure that we all will die. As Jennifer Hollis reminds us in Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain and Preparing the Passage, if we are fortunate to have time to prepare, dying need not be extremely scary or stressful. In particular, music can physically and emotionally help ease the way for the dying and their families as they move to their next state of existence.

Hollis, president of the Music-Thanatology Association International (and COS member), has written a profoundly beautiful and personal book about spiritual journey, vocation, and ministry to those nearing the end of life in this world. Far more than an account of her own personal path, however, Hollis’s book offers a fascinating history of the emerging field of music-thanatology. The field was founded just forty years ago but has origins in medieval times, when monks at the monastery at Cluny would sing psalms or chant prayers for a dying brother, members of the community never leaving his side until his death. She describes what training is like for today’s aspiring music-thanatologists (“First, build a harp!”—though other instruments or none at all may be used), examines the spiritual and emotional demands on practitioners (who may have never witnessed a person’s death), and provides great insights into the challenges of incorporating spiritual care through music into the entrenched traditions and routines of hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices. She notes how music-thanatologists differ from music therapists or therapeutic musicians. She also includes research on the palliative effects of music-thanatology on a patient’s physical condition—reducing pain and agitation and easing respiration, even in the comatose.

The heart of this book for me were the many unforgettable stories about the effects of music vigils on families and the dying. Music vigils have healed family rifts, enabled families members to approach the topic of withdrawing life support, and created space for their grieving—and also, surprisingly, their laughter—at the time of their loved one’s death. Likening music-thanatologists to spiritual midwives, Hollis’s stories also show how music vigils change staff members’ attitudes at care-giving facilities. As one chaplain said, “When I . . . have done patient care following a vigil, it’s really amazing. It’s like the groundwork has been laid for just an awesome conversation. Really honest conversation.” One music-thanatologist believes it can change the medical “culture”: “What we noticed is that when we started bringing music-thanatology into the patient rooms, all of a sudden, the nurses would say things like, ‘Would you leave the doors cracked while you’re playing?’ . . . they wanted to be part of that care that was just offered. So it started to change the conversation. It started to change where medicine had no goals around being with people who were dying. All of a sudden [the nurses and social workers] started talking about making them more comfortable . . . We noticed that rather than avoiding the care, they wanted to be a part of something that they perceived as tender, loving, and beautiful. [It] fulfilled a deeper need they had, as healers.”

Hollis, an accomplished harpist who ministers at Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Massachusetts, writes, “I am called make this small offering, with my homemade harp, and my own voice, and as much love and compassion as I can offer.

“People often ask how I can be a music-thanatologist. My answer is that the other side of grief is love—a deeply human, beautiful, striking, everyday love. The privilege of being present with dying patients has offered me insight into mystery—the mystery of loving family and friends, the brevity of life, and the courage ordinary people demonstrate every day. It is true that I witness a tremendous amount of grief at the bedside. But I also witness the love people have for one another and their tender struggle to express it in words, gestures, stories, or simply a look. It is pure grace to be invited into the presence of this love—a man stroking his brother’s forehead, a granddaughter whispering stories to her grandmother, an elderly man gazing at his wife of 50 years, friends gathered around a bed, holding hands.”

When the time comes, may we all be so lucky to have someone like Jennifer Hollis or another music-thanatologist helping us let go of our life here, gently and lovingly.

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