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Living at the End of Life: A Music Therapist’s Perspective

December 10, 2021, Caregiving, Elder Medical Care, End-of-life doula, Gilchrist, Giving, Grief, Hospice, Hospice Aides, Jewish Hospice, Music Therapy, Nurses

Living at the End of Life: A Music Therapist’s Perspective

As a music therapist, I use music to provide comfort and support to patients and families at the end of life. Many are surprised to find that I do not find working in hospice depressing. There is no doubt that my hospice coworkers and I experience our fair share of loss from those patients who have left a mark on our hearts.

Music Therapist with patient playing music

However, being surrounded by death and dying gives me a constant perspective that life is short and precious, and it reminds me of how I want to live my own life. In the past six years working for Gilchrist, I have realized that my focus is much more on life than on death. With each patient, I ask myself, How can I use music to bring as much quality to this person’s life as possible? How can I use music to help them live this chapter of their life to the fullest?

At Gilchrist, our motto is “Cherish every moment of life.” Cherishing each moment can be difficult, especially with all the distractions and barriers keeping us from focusing on what matters most. When coupled with uncertainty, pain and grief, this may be near impossible for some. Many caregivers feel they are just trying to survive, and this chronic stress can lead to caregiver burnout, emotional numbness, depression, addiction and other serious health concerns. Given these challenges, how can music help us “cherish every moment of life”? 

Music Helps

Music helps us to be present in the moment. When you are listening, singing or playing an instrument, your attention is attuned to the rhythm and melody. You begin to breathe in time with the music and feel it in your body as your toes start tapping. When we are present in the moment, we are not thinking of an impossible to-do list or spiraling with anxiety about what we cannot control. We are not just surviving—we are living.

Music helps us feel. Music can tap into our emotions and help us to express them. Music can express those feelings that are too big, too deep or too raw for words. Music can also provide a vessel to contain these feelings and help us move through them, rather than sitting in their discomfort. Allowing ourselves to express those feelings opens more space in our hearts to cherish each moment. 

Music Soothes

Music soothes us. Music can help reduce symptoms that prevent us from cherishing life, such as pain, anxiety, agitation, confusion and loneliness. Sometimes, music can help with symptom reduction so much that pain medication is not needed at that time. It offers feelings of safety, familiarity and predictable structure, even for the most confused. 

Music tells our stories. Most people have memories tied to specific songs and feel that music “transports” them back to significant moments in life: remembering the lullabies their parents sang to them, carefree days of youth, first meeting their spouse, or a wedding day. Music helps us facilitate and put meaning behind some of the most important words loved ones may share at the end of one’s life: Thank you. I forgive you. Please forgive me. I love you.

When working with a family, I often notice a shift in the energy in the room as soon as the music begins. Loved ones begin to focus their attention on the patient, holding their hand, stroking their hair, and comforting each other. They often begin to cry as they release some of their sadness, but also to smile as the music helps them recall joyful, happy and even silly memories. Idiosyncrasies that make that person them are lovingly remembered. As they recall their loved one’s favorite songs, sing, laugh and cry together, I witness them cherishing a very special moment of life. 

To learn more about Gilchrist’s Music Therapy program, visit gilchristcares.org/music-therapy. To support our work, visit gilchristcares.org/give.

This blog was written and contributed by Emily Mahoney, MMT, LGPC, MT-BC, Gilchrist Music Therapist & Clinical Counselor

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One thought on “Living at the End of Life: A Music Therapist’s Perspective

  1. Patricia Boland says:

    Emily was only with us for a short time but what she captured in her blog is what we experienced together when she visited my 97 yr old mother for a music therapy session. Our mom was visibly moved, and we experienced a peacefulness mixed with gratitude and joy that the music brought forth that day for all of us. We are very grateful for those moments of being together just a few weeks before she died at home with us.

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