Finding Meaning through Music at the End of Life

In this heartfelt and impassioned TED Talk, entitled, “When Meds Fail: The Case for Music Therapy,” board certified music therapist Tim Ringgold shares how he got to be the musical transformation for his young daughter’s passage into and out of this world.

Tim says: “When meds fail, the docs prescribe music.”

In describing his work with patients:  “I am meeting them inside the music.”

in describing his work as a music therapist:  “I stand at the intersection of art and science. And I get to administer music as medicine.”

Click here to view the video: “When Meds Fail: The Case for Music Therapy”.

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Music also has the power to transform by giving voice to our feelings.

The following story describes the meaning in the choices of songs by an older man facing death.  The story is followed by an audio testimonial by a mom of how music therapy helped give voice to the feelings of her daughter, who she lost to cancer.

Both stories are from the American Music Therapy Association website.

The Transformative Power of Working with People Who Are Facing Death

“Our work as music therapists never stops giving us powerful experiences and lessons. This seems to be magnified when spending one’s days with people who are facing death. With this experience, music therapists are sensitized to the extreme emotions surrounding death, and can empathize with these patients and their families.

“I had the privilege of working with an older man, who I’ll refer to as Mr. Smith, and who dearly touched my heart. Countless patients of mine have touched me, but Mr. Smith will remain in my memory as vividly as I saw him in the very hours we spent together.

“At the end of life, there is a certain amount of one’s will that determines when one dies. I have seen people hold on to their lives with extreme pain and labored breathing, for weeks, just to reconcile a broken relationship with a loved one. That being said, there is simply no substitute for the beautiful and seamless opportunity that music therapy provides for people to complete their lives with dignity.

“Music allowed Mr. Smith to die peacefully. The two songs that he specifically requested conveyed the messages he needed to share before departing from this world. Music therapy provided him the crucial opportunity or medium to express what he felt.

“Since Mr. Smith was in a great deal of pain at the end of his life, we never engaged in very formal lyric analysis; however, Mr. Smith naturally expressed his analysis of these songs in small, intermittent statements during our sessions.

“The first song he requested was Send In The Clowns, by Stephen Sondheim. This song, to Mr. Smith, highlighted the gross irony that, in stark contrast to the beauty and potential happiness in this world, there is often great emotional and physical pain in our final hours. The grand exit and culmination of our lives is often marked “not with a bang, but a whimper,” as T.S. Elliot so poignantly writes. It is a cold reality; a cruel joke that often leaves us bitter. Send in the Clowns validated and beautifully conveyed feelings for Mr. Smith when he could not. He said “I used to be able to sing and dance, and now-” he paused and closed his eyes, wincing from a shooting pain- “well, I’m here in this place.” “This place” was where people came to die. Mr. Smith knew that, because, in addition to being fully alert and oriented, he had a sister who had passed away there just two years before.

“The second song he requested was “Try to Remember,” from the Broadway musical The Fantastiks. This is a beautiful song that he particularly wanted his family to hear. There are several lines in this song that Mr. Smith highlighted by mouthing the words to his wife:

“Try to remember… and follow.”
“Without a hurt the heart is hollow.”

“Deep in December it’s nice to remember the fire of September that made us mellow.”

“I’ve wondered what Mr. Smith’s room would’ve been like without music therapy. Mr. & Mrs. Smith had four children- one who’d been estranged- all of whom were quite anxious. No one’s anxiety exceeded that of his wife, however. I was able to witness the facilitation of tears, hugs, and precious family interactions by our music therapy sessions together.

“I’ve also wondered how my life would be without the experience and privilege of working with Mr. Smith. It is impossible to know for sure, but I can say that I am better able to keep an eye on the big picture of my life after working with him.

“My time with Mr. Smith instilled in me a powerfully transformative thought. The music of our lives remains long after our bodies pass away; the love contained therein is eternal and will last beyond our pain.

Written by Sharon Graham, MM, MT-BC

The Gift of Music Therapy During My Daughter’s Battle with Cancer

“When Allison would peek through the window of our hospital room door, guitar in hand, we would heave a sigh of relief and wave her in… Music has the power to transport the listener.” Listen to this 3-minute testimonial from Jefri Franks, the mom of a child who received music therapy services throughout her fight with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  Jefri shares highlights of music therapy helped her family find outlets and insights through their “harrowing journey.”

Note: Current AMTA members can find a more detailed discussion of her family’s experiences with music therapy in the AMTA-pro podcast series.