Songs for the End of Life

Most of my patients like hymns, and I often play what I call the Big 3:  “The Old Rugged Cross,” “In the Garden,” and “How Great Thou Art”. “Amazing Grace” isn’t part of the Big 3 because it’s in a class entirely by itself. It is by far my most requested song. “Jesus Loves Me” gets an honorable mention. There are other hymns I like to incorporate, lesser known than the Big 3, but still familiar: “Softly and Tenderly,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” among many others.

When the patient has reached the very end of life, with literally hours or minutes left, and every breath calculated and delicate, these songs take on an almost unfathomable new meaning. Songs that might have been sung hundreds of times in church or at camp or revivals are now so potent when being sung to a loved one taking his or her last breaths. Consider these lyrics:

from The Old Rugged Cross:

To the Old Rugged Cross, I will ever be true
It’s shame and reproach gladly bear
Then He’ll call me someday to my home far away
Where His glory forever I’ll share

from Softly and Tenderly:

Come home, come home
Ye who are weary come home
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling
Calling, oh sinner, come home

from How Great Thou Art:

When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart
Then I will bow with humble adoration
And there proclaim, “My God, how great Thou art.”

Anytime there are lyrics that talk about home it really hits you how relevant the song is. It’s a powerful message, so powerful that I have to be careful with these words. If the family or the patient isn’t ready or hasn’t accepted that death is coming, I could do real damage. I’ve been in situations where I held back from singing songs with these lyrics because I didn’t know what the reaction would be. It’s at times like those I have to rely on my intuition and empathy to make the right choices.

When I can sense that the patient is ready and the family has accepted the circumstances, I feel comfortable and led to sing these songs. I also like to sing a song called “Going Home.” The lyrics are simple, poetic, and usually comforting for the family.

Going Home

Going home, going home
I’m jus’ going home
Quiet like, some still day
I’m jus’ going home

It’s not far, just close by
Through an open door
Work all done, cares laid by
Going to fear no more

Mama’s there ‘specting me
Papa’s waiting, too
Lots of folk gathered there
All the friends I knew

Nothing lost, all’s gain
No more fret nor pain
No more stumbling on the way
No more longing for the day
Going to roam no more

Morning star lights the way
Restless dream all done
Shadows gone, break of day
Real life yes begun

There’s no break, aint no end
Jus’ a livin’ on
Wide awake with a smile
Going on and on
I’m a’goin home.

The other night my boyfriend and I were talking about heaven and all the descriptions it’s been given. I mentioned how I feel heaven is too glorious, too substantial to be up in the clouds like it’s always imagined. He said he likes to think of it how Tolkien described “the West” at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy:

“And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water…the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

I’ve occasionally used the song “Into the West,” from the LOTR movies, in my sessions, when I’ve felt it’s been appropriate. The imagery paints a beautiful picture and can be comforting for the patients.

Into the West

Lay down
Your sweet and weary head
Night is falling
You’ve come to journey’s end
Sleep now
And dream of the ones who came before
They are calling
From across the distant shore

Why do you weep?
What are these tears upon your face?
Soon you will see
All of your fears will pass away
Safe in my arms
You’re only sleeping

What can you see
On the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home

And all will turn
To silver glass
A light on the water
All souls pass

Hope fades
Into the world of night
Through shadows falling
Out of memory and time
Don’t say: We have come now to the end
White shores are calling
You and I will meet again

And you’ll be here in my arms
Just sleeping

What can you see
On the horizon?
Why do the white gulls call?
Across the sea
A pale moon rises
The ships have come to carry you home

And all will turn
To silver glass
A light on the water
Grey ships pass
Into the West

Finally, not a song (yet), but I came across a poem that is often used in hospice care and at funerals. I was probably drawn to it because it reminded me of the Tolkien words. The poem is called “Gone From My Sight” by Henry Van Dyke.

Gone From My Sight

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then, someone at my side says, “There, she is gone”

Gone where?

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me — not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, “There, she is gone,”
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

And that is dying…

haven

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