Back in high school I took a career test. I filled out a hundred little bubbles on one of those multiple-choice questionnaires assessing strengths, weaknesses, likes, and dislikes in order to determine the top five careers in which I’d be most likely to succeed and find satisfaction. Of course, along with half of the other kids in my class, the top ranked result was “Music Therapist in End of Life Care.”
Actually, my career path was laid out long before then. As a little girl, I used to set up my dolls and stuffed animals in various rooms around the house, dressed in miniature hospital gowns and laden with blankets. I’d haul my toy piano from room to room and sing sweet songs to them as they pretend-died.
Just kidding again.
The true story goes like this. During the first quarter century of my life I can remember attending four funerals. At two of those (fully half of the total) I was present because I was one of the musicians. I did not lose a true friend or close family member until I was in graduate school. When my friend’s health was failing, hospice was not involved and her decline was difficult to witness. The grieving process that began even before she passed away was bewildering. In marked contrast, when my grandfather began to decline, hospice was a lifeline for my family. The unfamiliarity of the dying process did not pose a threat, in spite of all that was unknown to us, because here were people who knew. His comfort with the care he received from the staff significantly eased our burden, and at our fingertips was everything we needed to do our part. He died without pain (as far as we know) and with dignity. Thanks to the foresight of his hospice nurse, all eight of his children were able to arrive at his bedside during his final moments, which may have been the greatest service hospice provided him. Standing beside him when his life, marked by a legacy of humble service and a lifetime of quiet kindness, came to a close was one of the most difficult things I had ever done. But I knew immediately I would do it again if someone asked me to.
Just a few months later, I was at work one afternoon in a skilled nursing facility when I found out that one of our patients was actively dying. The staff who had cared for him for years wanted to do something, but felt helpless. They asked if there was anything I could do. Implementing music interventions in those next few moments was extraordinarily difficult, just as simply standing beside my grandfather had been. Yet it was so clearly necessary. There was nothing else to give him at that time, besides the hand I slid under his bony shoulder. I do not know if anything but music could have reached him. The staff around the room relaxed as they witnessed him relaxing. His comfort was a relief to them, not only because he was their patient but because in that moment more than ever he was a fellow human being.
In summary, the story of how I got into hospice work has just two parts. Both involve relatively recent events. The first part was the experience with my grandfather, in which hospice made an incredible difference for him as well as my family. The second part was the experience with a man who, without music therapy interventions, would have died tense and isolated in spite of the fact that there were people within reach who desperately wanted to help him. I cannot imagine how my story could have developed without these experiences, even if the notion of this vocation had materialized sooner, say on a career test, or in a young child’s wild imagination.