January 24, 2013

Music Thanatology

I drove to the hospital to support my childhood friend of forty eight years, and to say goodbye to her husband and my friend of thirty eight years. Hospice suggested that all family and friends should come to say their last goodbyes.

While I was sitting with the family during this most trying time, a nurse informed us that the music thanatologist would be arriving soon. Heads nodded and thanks was given to the nurse. 

I thought that a CD player was going to be brought in, and some classical music would be played. I had no idea what I was about to experience.

A soft spoken young man with long hair entered the room and introduced himself to all of us. He asked if he could explain what was going to take place.

This is the music thanatologist in the
hospital hallway preparing for the session
He explained he would be playing a small harp and that the music would be improvised and modified to the immediate needs of the patient. He sat next to the bed and observed the breaths being taken in and out, and slowly he reached into his pocket without making a sound and remove a pocket watch and timed the breaths.

He reentered the room quietly with his harp, and the music vigil began with soft cords filling the room. The two adult children and I were sitting on chairs while my friend sat on the bed holding her husbands hand.

The thanatologist watched the breathing of M all the time he was playing, adjusting the pitch and the sound level many, many times. 

My friend whispered to her husband during the music vigil, tears fell freely from all of us. Body language changed during the music vigil, the children got up from the chairs and stood around the bed caressing their fathers arm and hand. My friend laid down next to her husband and caressed his face and continued to whisper in his ear. 

The room was filled with peace and love for her husband, their father and my friend. I felt guilty for imposing on this family unit while this beautiful music was being played for the their dying husband and father, but also I felt privileged that the family ask me to stay for this music vigil.

The music vigil lasted a little longer than thirty minutes, and as quietly as he entered the room he exited the same way.

I left the room at the same time giving the family some privacy and spoke with the thanatologist.

I asked him to explain his work to me.

A music vigil can take place at any time during hospice care but is particularly beneficial during critical times such as days immediately prior to death. The purpose of a music vigil to to provide comfort and support both to the person who is dying and to the loved ones.

Creating a supportive musical field can be helpful to ease anxiety and make it easier for the patient to find peace.

This was a beautiful experience as I watched my friend lying in the bed I said prayers, remembered all the good times we shared together, and said my good bye. 

Some of you might think that this post is not appropriate, and you would be exactly correct; however, my friend knows that I  blog and asked me to write down my experience during this event so that she could read this and remember this beautiful event. 

In the hush of the early morning M quietly went to his heavenly home. Rest in Peace 


  1. Your post was exactly appropriate; this was a beautiful, touching experience you had been asked to share...in many ways. I'm so glad they had something to help comfort them, all of them.

    We will all face death someday...our own and loved one's...better to know that it can, and should be, approached without fear and with love. Bless you for being there for them and honouring their request.

  2. What a lovely post Paulette, I must admit to being close to tears reading it. I think its a wonderful idea and had never heard of it before.I'm sure it will have been comforting for all.

  3. I've never heard of anyone doing this before. It must be new or just in your part of the country but how wonderfully peaceful it must have been. Sorry to hear about the death of your friend.

  4. i find it touching and respectful...word pictures do help healing later and your friend will be happy with what you've written, I believe.

  5. I have never heard of a music thanatologist or this experience. I think music can be such a soothing and comforting thing (the peace and love you felt in the room) that this makes perfect sense.

    Thank you for sharing this with us, Paulette. May the wonderful memories of your dear friend help you through the grief of losing him.