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Music Therapy in Palliative Care – Preserving your Legacy With Music

Being aware of your personal soundtrack can have some profound consequences. For Gwen, music enabled her to become all that she could be just a month before she would die. Gwen, a fifty-five-year old, sat in a warmly decorated room near the window. Sixteen months prior, she was diagnosed with cancer. She never expected the breast cancer to metastasize at such a rapid rate until she heard those fateful words, “There is nothing more we can do for you but give you a comfortable place to rest.” She had dreaded telling her only daughter and her sister the news. When she told them, they both broke down in tears and were soon making sure the doctors had done everything they could. Now in hospice, Gwen did all she could in her fragile state to prepare her loved ones for the inevitable.

When the Music Therapist was introduced to Gwen, Gwen was wearing a colorful head scarf that covered what was once blond hair. Pictures of her and her family were all around the room, interspersed with colorful paintings and drawings.

“Come, sit close to me, I have been expecting you,” she said.

She pointed to the chair next to her chair by the window and rested her hand on my shoulder as the Music Therapist sat down. She turned slightly and in a sweet, gentle voice said, “I have had a lot of time to process what is happening to me, and understand I must die. I am worried about my daughter, Hailey, and my sister Julia. They are very angry. She took a deep breath and said, “They are not accepting that this is happening to me or to them.” She brushed a few strands of what was left of her hair away from her eyes and said, “I need you to help me.”

 “Will you learn these 12 songs on your guitar by Friday and meet us here precisely at 2:00 p.m.?”

That Friday, the Music Therapist had the songs prepared and arrived precisely at 2:00 p.m. Her daughter and sister were sitting on either side of her, “I invited you here today because we need to say goodbye.” Silence. “I know that this is hard for you as it is for me, so I came up with an idea that could perhaps help all of us. Hailey will you please go into the side closet and take out the piece of canvas I asked Julia to bring last week.”

“I have asked the Music Therapist to play twelve signature songs today. During the first song I am going to start drawing and when the song ends I am going to pass the canvas to you Julia and you are going to continue the picture adding in whatever the music brings to your mind. “When the second song is finished then you will pass the canvas to Hailey who is going to continue from where you left off. We will pass the canvas back and forth after every song. 

During the last song Gwen put a few finishing strokes on the canvas and then held it up for each of them to look at. The tears they held back released and two arms went behind Gwen in an embrace as they gazed at the piece of art they created. 

Gwen had set the intention of using her life’s music soundtrack as the backdrop to already powerful relationships. It was a non-verbal means of sharing herself and her heart, and the music allowed her to say a touching goodbye.

Exercise: Your Personal Soundtrack

With a piece of paper by your side, or on your computer, construct the following chart. If you can do this on the computer, that would be best because you’re obviously going to need more space than what’s given here to write down all the music you listened to at whatever age and the memories associated with that music. If you don’t use a computer, that’s fine. Just make one age category per page. That way, if you need to use more paper—say for your teen years – you can do that and not get the age groups mixed up (that’s very important actually. You want to recognize when you were listening to what music).

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