So I started my hospice music therapy internship two weeks ago. Hospice is the holistic care of persons who are terminally ill and their families. Services are usually covered by Medicare and include medical (nurses, aides) and social services (social worker, chaplain, music therapy). Some hospices offer other services such as massage therapy, counseling, and speech therapy.
In these two weeks I’ve seen just about everything – smiles, tears, anxiety, peace, patients in their 90’s, and great-grandchildren who are months old. I’ve sang many hymns, Roy Orbison, James Taylor, and Tom Petty. I’ve driven hundreds of miles and seen approximately 298,000 farms (and smelled their smells). I’ve been in several nursing homes, and residential homes that have been lived in for 50+ years. Houses where the dining room or living room or the room with the best view has been turned into the patient’s room, with the furniture moved out to make room for the special hospital bed, equipment, bedside table, medical supplies, IV stand, notepads full of vitals stats and numbers for medicine, air mattresses or sleeping bags for the family member in charge of being with the patient overnight, walls full of framed photos, fresh flowers, and folding chairs strewn about. I’ve heard laughter from a patient when I couldn’t play the chords right, tears from a patient at the first phrase of “In the Garden.” I’ve heard stories of couples who have been married for more than 60 years.
On my third day, I saw a patient die. It was beautiful and peaceful. I felt humbled to be there with the family, that they would share this intimate moment with someone they had never met.
I’ve learned a lot already. I’ve learned how important it is not to judge anything you see or hear. Grief is unpredictable and there are many ways of coping with it. There is no right or wrong, there just is. There’s definitely a lot less social tension when judgment is not present. You meet the patient or caregiver where they are, and you simply sit next to them, literally and figuratively. Any change that occurs is brought on by the music. It does the work. Whether it’s to increase the energy (if there is depression) or diminish it (if there is anxiety).
But. The most important thing I have learned from my first two weeks observing hospice music therapy is this:
Family. Family. Family. Family. Family. Family.
Dying is hard. Loss is hard. But the common denominator I’ve seen with every single patient is family. I’ve seen families consisting of one spouse. I’ve seen families consisting of 9 children and 20+ grandchildren. Great-grandchildren. Aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, cousins, in-laws. Actually – especially in-laws. The in-laws I’ve observed provide an immense amount of strength and support to the immediate family.
I know families are diverse. My family alone practically takes a diagram to explain. Families are broken, numb, estranged, non-communicative, etc. But I would wager your family will stop LIFE to ensure your safety and well-being.
I don’t know how appreciative you are of your family (or how much you can be, depending on your circumstances). What I do know is there is amazing strength and fortitude when families come together to support a dying loved one. I see grace, patience, and empathy. I see beauty and heartache. I see pain and joy.
Let’s see what the next two weeks brings…