Music therapy in death

Just what he needed, a smiling woman with a harp.

by Jill Forman

The dying man was restless. His wife soothed him with gentle touch and words. “Thank you,” she said, “for giving me such a great life. I love you so much.”

Harold and Dorothy had been together for 45 years and been on voyages of all kinds: travelling, raising a family, exploring varied spiritual paths. She would stay by his side while he undertook his final journey.

Livingston Hospice came to help with a hospital bed in their living room, visiting nurses and assistants, and other services as needed. Streams of visitors came, from the Unitarian Universalist Church, from drum circles and musical groups, from mental health and homeless organizations. Harold had been involved in all of those and more, and enjoyed having his friends around him.

On this particular day, he was restive. Not in pain, he indicated. Livingston had just what he needed, a smiling woman with a harp. Lori Sunshine (her real name,) a Board Certified Music Therapist, came to play for him and Dorothy. And for a visiting friend, who was lucky enough to be there and witness this.

With very few words to start, Sunshine started to play. Peaceful comforting melodies. Harold started to relax almost immediately, Dorothy took a deep breath and some of the stress left her face. The friend was in tears.

As she blended tunes, Lori talked in a low, soothing voice, asking about music choices but generally gauging the mood and changes as she played. Molly Corbett, Livingston’s Director of Development, praised Lori’s skill ”…she can read what the patient needs.”

The purpose of Hospice is to help with pain management and comfort care, but also “…to make the time enjoyable,” Corbett added. Music Therapy has been proven to decrease anxiety, promote relaxation, and help sleep. Family and friends are able to connect with the client through music and the emotional connection it carries.

Mandy Furlong, RN, Livingston’s Director of Hospice Care Services, pointed out that often clients are “…so lonely and isolated at the end of life.” Social workers and nurses identify clients who might benefit from Music Therapy. “Someone could just put on a CD,” she said, “but it’s not at all the same.” Music therapy is not reimbursed by insurance, and the hospice relies on the generosity of its donors to provide this service.

Sunshine agrees. “Music is a tool, the therapist is part of the process, assessing where the patient is in the journey, the family situation. Music can soothe the soul; it has a deep benefit and helps bring peace and acceptance.” She considers herself part of the therapeutic team, with music connecting to the cosmos in a spiritual way.”

Sunshine plays piano, drums, guitar, harp, and she sings also. To become a professional, she completed university degree and an internship, then took boards to be certified. “I am not an entertainer.” She feels that all therapists, of any specialty, need both the education and “…a heart in the right place.”

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