Guest Contributor – Bev Foster
I have always had a strong sense that music is my close companion along the journey of life. Music continues to accompany me through various life passages giving me a deeper sense of connection and belonging, rekindling old bonds and forming new ones.
Music’s ability to connect people whether it’s two people or two thousand and two is profound. It may be a shared event where a connection is made, like a wedding or concert. It may be a shared feeling where we resonate around an emotion like love or grief. It may be a shared idea where the music becomes symbolic like the hook of a jingle or protest.
During lockdown restrictions in the pandemic, music kept us connected in our neighbourhoods whether at porch and rooftop concerts, balcony gatherings, or on our devices, virtual concerts or Zoom visits. Music helped us remember we weren’t alone and invited us out of isolation into something bigger than ourselves.
Music has the capacity to help us express ourselves in all of life’s circumstances. And dying is one of those circumstances.
Music’s power and capabilities may be most potent at the end of life when the unfamiliar road ahead needs orientation. Songs may provide hope. Recognizable melodies may bring feelings into form. Listening to favourite songs may provide a sense of legacy, meaning, and affirmation.
I saw that for myself when my Dad was dying. In Room 217 at our local hospital, my mom and brothers and sisters sang the songs he loved around his bedside. We knew the tunes, and when we couldn’t remember the words we hummed or ‘lah-ed’ instead. The important thing is that they were the songs he loved, that had been important to him, that expressed who he was and what he believed, that gave him present strength and courage to let go and transition.
That day, I learned firsthand what a song could do when someone is imminently dying. Songs comforted and connected us and assisted us in communicating when parting words were hard to find.
Later on, I learned that what was happening for our family was that music was helping us do relationship completion, a significant part of dying. Dr. Ira Byock explains it well in his book, The Four Things That Matter Most. He acknowledges four sentiments that permit relationships to reach completion once they are expressed : I love you, thank you, forgive me/I forgive you, and good-bye.
Deeply connected by the music, we were finishing up together, his songs an expression of our love and farewells, dealing with any unfinished business, and expressing gratitude for his life. For me, this made those last moments precious and beautiful.
Kenneth Bruscia says that “songs connect us to our inner world; they bring us closer to others; they keep us company when we are alone. They articulate our beliefs and reaffirm our values. They arouse, they accompany and they release. And as the years pass, our songs bear witness to our lives and give voice to our experiences. They rekindle the past, reflect the present and project the future. Songs weave tales of our joys and sorrow; they express our dreams and disappointments, our fears and triumphs. They are our musical diaries, our life stories.”
What an apt description of why Dad’s songs were important for relationship completion for our family.
During the palliative journey, songs can also be powerful in legacy work. Composing a song for loved ones, leaving your lifesongs on a playlist perhaps with accompanying stories, integrating songs into journals or other artistic means can provide an opportunity for significant messages to be passed on.
Songs help everyone in the care circle through the entire grief journey of losing a loved one. Dr. Joy Berger suggests that songs can help strengthen us to confront loss, contain the pain loss brings, recollect memories and discover meanings, and help us move on with life after loss.
Songs may be particularly helpful for caregivers to process feelings, provide soul nourishment, resilience, and a sense of hope and restored beauty along the way.
Songs can be delivered live at the point of care like me and my family did. Real. Present. Raw. There may be a music therapist or community musician or harp therapist available to you to help deliver live music and in particular, a meaningful song.
Recorded songs can be offered via technology. Having personal playlists ready of significant songs of the care recipient may be helpful. Apps like MUSIC CARE CONNECT are especially designed with music for palliative and end-of-life care using familiar songs and sounds.
Music and songs in particular are an important way for humans to express our deepest sentiments. We can use songs at end of life to convey these messages more powerfully and completely than words alone because they provide the language we need to end relationships well.