Peaceful, eyes closed and unresponsive, she lay there in the last hours of life as her body slowly shuts down its functions. She was waiting to die. Though she had not spoken for several hours, I asked her if she wanted to listen to music. She moved her head as if to nod and said a soft “yeah, yeah”.
I chose music that I thought would be familiar and soothing to her. Her Catholic faith had been of life long importance in her 91 plus years and she also sang in her church choir. As the tunes of the familiar hymns played: Ave Maria, On Eagles Wings, Be Not Afraid, she lay relaxed, breathing slowly and easily.
As a music therapist, especially at the end of life, the intention for the music played is to be relaxing and relevant to the listener. The last thing a person needs when faced with the challenge of dying is to have to listen to music that they do not care for. One time the person I was working with clearly did not want what he heard, as indicated by his struggle and grimace as I played music. Some clearly do not want music, for whatever reason. It is not my place to judge but to be present to the needs of the person.
Visitors came and I turned the music off. Her breath had turned to the sound known as the “death rattle” and the morphine dosage was increased. The doctor said that it wouldn’t be long. I asked the visitors to leave; as the sound of her breathing was obviously disturbing them and she had seemed more peaceful with music playing.
Alone with her again, I chose the sound of the ocean, water lapping onto the shore. It matched her ragged breathing as she went deeper into the final stage of death. I thought that perhaps she wanted to be alone to die in private, so I told her I was going to leave the room and would be back in 5 minutes.
When I returned, the pastor from her assisted living facility was at her side, praying and gently singing to her. Again, I observed a peaceful presence as she seemed to be listening and benefiting from the music. Suddenly she coughed and opened her eyes, looking straight into my eyes. I spoke to her in loving, gentle tones and sang her favorite hymn “Be Not Afraid”. I told her that she was loved and would always be loved, and that there was nothing to fear. I said that all would be well on this side of earth’s consciousness and that she would be well too. I told her that I loved her and began to cry.
Her eyes closed and I saw a small tear drop from her right eye. I wiped it and said goodbye. She took a final breath, and all breathing ceased after that.
That was 3 years ago. Music carried and loved her into her death, and so did I. This person was my mother. I was privileged to be her daughter as well as her music therapist at the end of her life.
Clearly my mother loved music. I remember her singing at home, in the car and dancing with my father. She was my most honest critic and loyal encourager as I began to take lessons and later pursued music as a career. I felt privileged to be her daughter and to use the gift of music to help her to move into the consciousness beyond. She died on December 23, 2014.
In releasing the sorrow, I can also see the beauty of the gifts that my mother gave me. Gifts of life itself, of her loving me unconditionally, and the knowledge that I did everything I could have done to help her throughout her life, through to her passing.
The gift of saying goodbye and creating complete closure is a rare one to experience with the loss of a loved one. I am most grateful for that gift. For in that completion I again realize the Love and presence of a spiritual connection that continues beyond death. This knowing of Love is even more real and authentic to me as her physical presence was on earth.
My mother was always grateful to me, and I will always be grateful for music and the experience of divine presence through and beyond her passing. Good night, Mom. I hear the carol “Silent Night” and remember her sleeping in “heavenly peace”.