“Where words fail, music speaks.” ― Hans Christian Andersen
Music thanatology is a clinical modality that unites music and medicine in end-of-life care. In 2001, Providence became the first health system in the world to hire full-time music thanatologists. In the years since, the program has brought comfort and peace to hundreds of people as they faced the end of life.
The music thanatology field emerged about 42 years ago out of the human need for dignity, beauty and compassion in the way we die. It supports emotional processing and meditation, and its purpose is to provide spiritual, emotional and physical support, especially at the end of life.
“The ministry of thanatology is about accompanying patients in their dying process through the comfort and blessing of music,” says Teresa Lynch, director of Spiritual Care for Providence in Thurston and Lewis Counties. “The presence of a thanatologist enhances and contributes positively to the healing environment. We see it first-hand, and research shows that providing this therapy improves quality of life for people in their final days.”
The peaceful comforting presentation of music or voice, or both, is directed specifically to the individual patient’s needs, situation and journey. At Providence, music thanatologists use harps and voices at the bedside. They invite patients simply to receive the music; there is no need to engage in return.
Kyle Higaki, music thanatologist at Providence, says he learned about the field a few years ago and felt an intense calling. “It brings rest, relaxation. It provides a sacred space. Patients can close their eyes and meditate, contemplate or pray.”
“We’re often spending time with patients at the end of life,” Kyle says. “It’s a sacred privilege. I might very well be the last person they spend time with. It’s a very spiritual journey, and I am honored to be a part of that journey for every person I attend.”
Kyle recently played for William Hosford, a patient in the hospital, and his stepdaughter Gina Salerno. After Kyle played, William requested another visit. “For me, it was just the communication, the openness of presenting the sound and music.” William says. “I noticed a change in Gina, and we opened up immediately on hearing the tones.”
Gina agrees. “When he played, it became such a simple thing to be able to relax,” she says. “It made me forget that all these things were happening. It was such a relief.”