Music has the power to walk alongside people throughout their life journeys. Many important episodes of our lives can be immortalized in the songs that were significant to us during those times. For many people, music can be a means of expressing the sublime and inexplicable feelings and impressions that make up their lives.
In grief, so much of what we experience feels impossible to describe. We cannot find words to pin down our despair. It can feel that no amount of crying will exorcize the sheer agony of loss. While we may take comfort in bereavement theories that tell us about stages of our grief, there is rarely any sense of order in our grieving process. There is no set timeline on how to grieve, and “closure” can often hang as an unrealistic expectation.
Music cannot make our grief go away.
But it can meet us in the chaos of it.
At the heart of quality music therapy programs are a few simple principles:
- Music is a human phenomenon that accompanies people in their lives, regardless of their training, background, or knowledge
- Music is an evidence-based, non-pharmacological intervention that can assist with symptom management and address psycho-social concerns in the end of life
- With some simple training and awareness, music is something all people can use to enhance their caring relationships
None of this is rocket-science. And yet science should back up every one of the outstanding music therapy programs that exist today.
Music and music therapy is a well-researched modality for effective end-of-life care. Deborah Salmon (2001) has shown how music can provide psychodynamic holding container for transforming suffering into meaning in a therapeutic relationship. Amy Clements-Cortes (2009) has shown how music therapy can be used to facilitate five stages of relationship- completion with dying patients and their families. And countless studies (Curtis, 1986, Krout, 2001, Magill, 2001) have demonstrated evidence of music therapy in managing pain.
But as much as we support the use of music in clinical palliative care, music can be a vital way to accompany people on their grief.
If you are walking a grief journey, I invite you to ask: what are songs that can accompany you through this journey? Make playlists.
There is no right way, or clear way, through grief,
but music can be a lighthouse through it all.
Can you make a playlist of songs that express your anger over a loss, or that say “I love you” to the person you can no longer speak to? Can you create a playlist with a dying person that reflects significant seasons in their lives? Can you create playlists with families that help them say goodbye to one another? Let the music speak what words cannot.
If you are a palliative care provider, whatever your caring relationship, we believe music can strengthen what you do. Here are three simple tips for integrating music into your palliative care relationships.
1. Ask the question: what is a song that has been meaningful in your life? Most people don’t have a single “favorite song.” Asking someone about a song that has been meaningful in their lives invites conversation, connection, intimacy and closeness. Quickly looking up a song on your phone and listening to it together can be a fast, effective, and profound way of quickly developing a rapport with someone.
2. Sing. Singing does not have to be “good” or “trained” for it to be an effective caregiving tool. Parents sing to their infants intuitively. See what it feels like to hum a little bit while making your way through your day, or to sing even just a single line of something special with a person you care for. The imperfection of singing only makes it more human. Embrace it and the relationship will likely strengthen for it.
3. Offer music. If someone is dying, or in distress, offer them recorded music. When in doubt pick something gentle, but always let the person decide whenever possible what they would like to listen to. A simple CD player that you can plug into a wall, along with four or five CDs, should be standard resources at any nursing station, palliative care unit or hospice. The presence of music can provide instant comfort in these critical life moments.
Again, none of this is rocket-science, and yet it can be so meaningful. Music can walk alongside people throughout their life journeys – and can walk along side them in their grief.
By: Sarah Pearson, Music Therapist, Oncology & Palliative Care
Program Development Coordinator, Room 217 Foundation