Friday, January 13, 2006

Music Thanatology

Thanatos is the Greek word for death. A music thanatologist is someone who specializes in creating a music therapy prescription as part of the dying experience - both for the patient and the family.

At some points in your life, I am sure you have noticed physiological responses in yourself that have related to music. Personally, my choice in music varies depending upon whether I am excited, sad, or angry. And music can help to either shift my mood or to enhance it. At the end of life, we continue to have physiological responses to song.

In the United States, music vigils at the end-of-life frequently consist of harpists. Live harpists can adjust the music tempo to the rhythm of the patient's breath.

Many other cultures also have musical traditions that pertain to the end of life.

The traditional Hindu song "Praan Tanse Nikle" is a musical prayer to Lord Krishna, seeking liberation at the time of death.

In Chinese Buddhist culture, the chanting of sutras and mantras may be accompanied by musical instruments. The most commonly recited sutras are Amitabha Sutra, the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and the Earth Treasure Sutra. In my work setting, the same Chinese Buddhist chant has been used with multiple families. It's very beautiful, though I haven't figured out which one I've been hearing yet.

For some patients, we play general instrumental, relaxation or meditation tapes. We have had some patients or family members who have brought in their own music, which included songs that they liked from pretty much any genre out there.

Since Orange Kitty's death, I have been craving songs about grief and loss and death. They aren't so easy to find! [Let me know if you have any suggestions].

One song I've run into, "If I Could" by Jack Johnson, contains this great line:

"I heard some words from a friend on the phone, didn't sound so good. The doctor gave him two weeks to live. I'd give him more, if I could. You know that I would now. If only I could."

When I hear that song, I am reminded that... Although I had Orange Kitty put to sleep, if I had been able to give her back her comfort and her function, I would have wished her an even longer life.

The song "Bowl of Oranges" by Bright Eyes has a line that really speaks to me. When I'm sad that we can't cure someone physiologically (one of my patients at work), this song reminds me of what I can do:

"I came upon a doctor, who appeared in quite poor health. I said, 'There is nothing that I can do for you you can't do for yourself.' He said, 'Oh yes, you can, just hold my hand. I think that that would help.' So I sat with him awhile, then I asked him how he felt. He said, 'I think I'm cured. Well, in fact, I'm sure. Thank you, stranger, for your therapeutic smile."

Although I don't expect a physiological cure from holding someone's hand and smiling, I am reminded time and again of what a profound effect these simple gestures can have.

Okay, I went off on a bit of a tangent there. Back to music... What kind of music or what songs would you want to hear at the end of your life?

For more information, Growthhouse Radio has a large selection of music that may be used as part of a musical vigil for someone who is dying.

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