Caregivers, pre-bereavement

A (Possible) Way Forward with Hospice Caregivers during Pre-Bereavement

Mary: I got my mom back for a bit. I got to enjoy the music with her…She was there, she was here and I could see her again happy, joyful, and singing. Which is what she did all the time doing the dishes, doing the laundry, vacuuming, and whatever she was singing and she loved it and there she was my mom was back. Little snippets of seeing her it was awesome and it did a lot for me because I got to have her for a few minutes again, it really did a lot.

June: As I look back, [music therapy] kind of became paramount in the whole thing. Like, I think of that more than most of the other things because it was such a part of her and such a part of me really too. And it was such a pleasant part that even with all the difficulty at the end and everything I could still hear the music, I could still see her face even without looking at the video. This was all imprinted in my mind. And it’s like, kind of like a happy ending…it’s such a pleasant memory.

There is certainly great excitement to be found in the “new” – something unexpected is alluring, even sexy, and can dominate our internal news tickertape – but my favorite research is the kind that offers evidence for the obvious. I’m not referring to confirmation bias, the active hunting for information backing up your pre-dispositions; rather, I’m speaking to that point of contact between evidence-based practice and practice-based evidence, where systematic examination of a phenomenon and clinical experience with a phenomenon interact to provide a comprehensive, holistic illustration.

Continue reading “A (Possible) Way Forward with Hospice Caregivers during Pre-Bereavement”

Advocacy, Music & Memory

Listening Programs: Fast Track to Nowhere Fast

It is with great pleasure that we share this guest post from Jessica Josefczyk, a board-certified music therapist practicing with older adults in Dayton, OH (be sure to check out her full bio under Contributors). Here, Jess offers an important perspective about the growing influence of Music & Memory, its potential impact on the practice and reach of music therapy with older adults, and how music therapists may be able to position themselves in relation to the growing trend of music listening services.

Continue reading “Listening Programs: Fast Track to Nowhere Fast”


Grief as Inspiration Porn

For anybody following the NBA playoffs this spring, it’s been difficult to avoid the dominating story about Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics continuing to play – and play well – while grieving the death of his sister a couple of weeks ago. Two weeks ago, on what would have been her birthday and only days after her funeral, Thomas scored 53 points.

The responses have been predictable, if not by rote. TV commentators simultaneously swooned and raved about his bravery. Fellow NBA players unleashed a torrent of inspirational hashtags to commemorate his resolve. Beat reporters wantonly employed terms such as “heartbreak”, “strength”, and “perseverance” to capture the emotional crests and troughs of grief.

Continue reading “Grief as Inspiration Porn”

Best practice, Countertransference

Do clients really die to meet our needs?


During the height of the primaries earlier this year, Meghan and I participated in a (rather heated) community discussion about the role misogyny and sexism played in shaping how the presidential candidates were perceived. In a private follow up with Meghan, I noted that my entrance into a feminist perspective began with my daughter four years ago, that before my daughter was born being white and male afforded me a position of privilege buffering me from the troubling hegemonies that affected others. But after my daughter’s birth, I argued, I vicariously lived my daughter’s interactions with the social cues – e.g., a cascade of pink clothing, affirmations of being “cute”, questions about her favorite princesses, etc. – that dictated how she “should” be, affording me new insights and expanded awareness.

Continue reading “Do clients really die to meet our needs?”


Cat Hospice

“We’re running a cat hospice”

I hadn’t really connected the dots in that way until my wife said it out loud to friends. While I had been aware of it on an intellectual level, it was jarring to hear it framed in that way. Suddenly, we weren’t curing our 18-year-old feline’s failing kidneys or reversing her ailing liver functioning. Rather, we were making her comfortable, bearing witness, and waiting.

Continue reading “Cat Hospice”


Mothering our Patients

We are excited to share with you this guest post from Miriam Sherk, a hospice music therapist at Mercy Hospice Trinity Health Care in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Here, Miriam reflects on the parallels and intersections of motherhood and music therapy in hospice, and considers how the roles of “mother” and “music therapist” inform one another. Please feel free to any thoughts, questions, or general comments for Miriam or about the post to help further this important discussion.

I walked into Ed’s room last winter, knowing that he would not greet me with recognition. Ed had a diagnosis of vascular dementia and his cognition had been slowly declining in his recent months in hospice. His nurse had shared with me that Ed had been crying throughout the morning “for no particular reason.” As I walked towards Ed’s bed he reached out his arms towards my 8 month pregnant belly, looked up at me and spoke the word “mother.” At this moment I felt a sense of vulnerability. Something so personal and cherished to me was being brought into the therapeutic space without warning. Feeling disarmed I hesitated briefly.

Continue reading “Mothering our Patients”

Best practice

Sometimes, Music Therapy Isn’t Enough

What follows is an exchange that we (Noah and Kristen) had over email regarding two aspects of our work which caused us to ponder the limits of the work.

Neurological Irritability and Terminal Agitation


As another case presentation wraps up at our monthly palliative care committee meeting, the recurring question is raised: “What other services could this child benefit from?” We just sat through a case presentation of a 1-year-old who presented with one of the most difficult (in my opinion) symptoms to manage—neurological irritability. The question is almost rhetorical, as no one really does seem to know what else to do.

For those unfamiliar with the term, neurological irritability typically occurs in infants who are neurologically devastated and worsens over the first year. The theory is similar to neuropathy, where the nerves are firing spontaneously. This results in seemingly unending irritability which does not resolve with traditional soothing techniques, including (typically) music/music therapy. These babies have had poor brain development, and typically exhibit repetitive and unchanging crying, dysautonomia, and muscle spasms. A variety of medications are often trialed, along with positioning, vibration, music therapy, Reiki, massage, etc. You name it, we try it. But think about that—your baby cries endlessly until they fall asleep and does not respond to any of your attempts to comfort them.


This really resonates with me, Kristen, and reminds of my work with terminal agitation. Terminal agitation emerges during imminent death, and is an intense restlessness frequently marked by virulent (sometimes violent) efforts to get out of bed, strained calls for “help”, and an inability to be soothed. While the majority of hospice patients will not experience it, for the minority that do it is a highly distressing experience for them, their loved ones, and any present healthcare professionals. So distressing is the experience that a particular focal point for me while educating new patients and their families is how to identify terminal agitation and what steps to take when it begins. We want to break the initial cycles of that agitation before it evolves into something more intense and unmanageable.


Interesting parallel, Noah. I had never considered the commonalities of both of these issues. The impact both have can be highly distressing to caregivers (families and staff).  Let’s consider, for a moment, the ways in which parents typically establish bonds with their children. Early on, there is a reciprocity that is established through the caregiver—care receiver dyad whereby the caregiver learns to interpret and respond to the baby’s cues, and the baby responds to those caregiving efforts to indicate that the caregiver has successfully met their needs. Thus, bonds are established and strengthened. The caregiver also becomes more secure in their abilities to care for their baby and doesn’t necessarily need the reinforcement of these positive responses every time, as they can feel confident that they will eventually figure out how to soothe their baby. What an amazing circle of communication this is! Now, let’s consider the description of the baby with neurological irritability—the baby who is either asleep or appears to be writhing in pain. Imagine the difficulty this begins to pose over time.


Right – when this degree of distress manifests, it impacts loved ones and becomes an interpersonal issue in addition to an intrapersonal one. Nobody wishes to die experiencing so much dissonance within and around them, and no caregiver wishes to bear witness to their loved one, who has already struggled with so much, struggle even further. Compounding this caregiver stress is their bearing witness to the struggles of hospice professionals attempting to treat it. That is perhaps the most disheartening and frustrating element of terminal agitation: we experience the “what” but do not know the “why”. Kathy Murphy once wisely intoned to me that the only people who know what it’s like to die are dead, and here that barrier looms large. It’s impossible to determine what exactly causes terminal agitation given that those who have experienced it are unable to share, so we’re left with a lot of conjecture.

Biomedical explanations range the gamut, from infections, to unmanaged wounds, to a natural restlessness brought about by organs shutting down. No true point of origin is known, and accordingly pharmacological treatment largely focuses on administration of anti-anxiety and anti-psychotic psychotropics. The goal of these medical interventions is not to alleviate the agitation but to override it under a mountain of sedation. I find this is troubling as I understand terminal agitation as an existential condition far more than a physiological one.

For me, terminal agitation is an existential condition to a much larger extent than a physiological one. Terminal agitation does not discriminate, occurring for both the most anxious and the most actualized of patients. It’s point of occurrence during imminent death, that critical 24-72 hour window of time when the patient is actively transitioning into death, is key. It suggests that during this time when the patient is readying him/herself to let go of this life and move onto what comes next, their unresolved content (e.g., past traumas, fractured interpersonal patterns, etc.) rises to the surface to essentially say “Hey, what about me?” For some, the re-introduction of that content into their consciousness hits hard and furious, and at a time when their psychic resources are compromised, a primal desire to “fix” that unresolved content can take place. At such times I believe terminal agitation sets in.

What Can We Do?


It’s the inability for any of us to “fix” the situation and resolve the symptoms that make it so challenging.  In the facility I work for, we care for a large number of children who are minimally responsive. These children receive round-the-clock care from nurses and therapists skilled at interpreting the subtle cues they present and responding accordingly. Even a child who seems to have almost no discernable responses can experience comfort through a nurse positioning them perfectly, strengthening the feeling of success that the nurse caregiver experiences in providing care. Each time we admit a child who is experiencing neurological irritability, there seems to be a silent groan. There is a collective effort to do everything we can, get every service involved, rack our brains and spend endless amounts of time trying to soothe this baby with typically minimal results. Eventually, the baby grows a bit older and moves into a more minimally responsive, less irritable state. But for that year or so, the toll the irritability takes on the staff is palpable. The longer the baby stays, the more the phrase “oh [name] cries all the time; that’s just the way he is.” is uttered. This is the resignation to the fact that, no matter how much we tried, we just couldn’t help this baby. That is very difficult to acknowledge.


You’re calling it for what it is, Kristen: sometimes, no matter the strengths of our craft, the skills of our practice, or the intuitiveness of music as a healing medium and experience, there’s very little we can do to impact meaningful and substantive positive change. For hospice music therapists, our charge is to help people more fully and intentionally engage with that unresolved content, to interact with it in the interest of constructing a resolution and/or closure that helps facilitate movement through this life into the next. Are we able to do that with somebody so overwhelmed with their internal experience and so out-of-reach from their surrounding environment? I can’t imagine how. Music, as a relational phenomenon, is predicated on reciprocity and shared experience, and there is little chance of those integral facets taking root here. So when I’m called out to a terminal agitation event, what tools do I have at my disposal?


Yet, it seems like others have that belief that relief would come from either the music, the music therapist, or both. Inevitably, someone from music therapy is called to assess the baby. Surely the baby WILL respond to music! Although I wish this were true, often there is honestly no discernable difference. However, that certainly doesn’t mean that music therapy is not necessary. I may argue that it is vital. What becomes important when music therapy is not actually helping is the perception that music therapy is helping. If you’re thinking “Emperor’s New Clothes”, you are not far off. Think about this… baby cried all the time; no one can help; helpless feelings turn to apathy/lack of bonding/diminished investment/compassion fatigue/etc. What if music therapy could break that cycle simply by altering the staff’s perception of the baby’s experience? Could that impact compassion fatigue? Could that promote bonding? Possibly.

No matter how many times I work in this environment, I continue to find it exhausting. The baby’s crying cycles so I cycle with them in the music. My voice rises and falls and, although I am almost certain that this would have happened in spite of me, the baby eventually falls asleep. The nurses respond so positively. They seem relieved, perhaps even comforted themselves. I also watched a nurse linger in the door with a slight smile as I was singing with the baby. I realize that I am speaking about a half hour compared to an entire day. However, the positive feedback from the nurses continue with each session. They even call to request sessions at times, possibly when they themselves required that musical reprieve.


And the question that arises for me while reading this, Kristen, is what if music therapy is unable to break that cycle? Such an unfair expectation impacts all parties: the clinician (who feels shamed for being unable to help in the way advertised), the caregiver (who feels disgruntled and disappointed that their loved one remains in an uncomfortable state), and, most importantly, the patient (who remains in a distressed state). This is where commonly held assumptions about what music should do and our continued difficulties communicating what music therapy can do are in conflict and creates discord. There are two issues here:

(1) The lack of distinction between music, which is a medium, and music therapy, which is a practice. Given our (generally) poor articulation of music therapy as a practice in end-of-life care,  non-music therapists’ poor understanding of this distinction makes sense. And in lieu of that understanding, it’s easy to see how non-music therapists could equate the medium (music) with the practice (music therapy) that employs the medium. When “medium” and “practice” are enmeshed in this way,  any assumptions an individual carries with him/her regarding what music should do is projected onto music therapy should do.

(2) Our poor understanding of what music therapy can do with patients experiencing terminal agitation. What’s our role, and what’s the role of the music? What symptoms do we focus on and how? Who do we focus on – the patient or the caregiver(s) – and how do we balance that focus? What theoretical precepts do we draw upon to inform this work? This is a phenomenon we haven’t explored yet, and it leaves us fumbling to conceptualize the clinical process as much as it leaves us questioning what best practices are.

My own practice with the terminally agitated tends to be vocally-centered with supplemental multisensorial interventions. Most sessions, this means I hold a patient’s hand or rub his/her shoulder in rhythm with carefully selected songs sung using varying voice qualities. Song selection involves sequencing into a song cycle centered around musical and lyrical themes. One cycle that I frequently draw upon is:

  • Amazing Grace (Traditional)
  • Let It Be (The Beatles)
  • The River (Garth Brooks)
  • Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon & Garfunkel)
  • Come Thou Found (Traditional)

This cycle employs water imagery and themes of passage that assists patients and caregivers to jointly move through this period of imminent death. The voice qualities that I strive for are prayerful (intimate, nurturing, holding) and ministerial (guiding, facilitating). The intensity, timbre, and inflections of each of these qualities are adjusted to attune with the presenting emotional, spiritual, and physical needs in the room at the time.


Likewise, I find myself drawn towards using my voice almost exclusively combined with loving presence and touch. I often use the pediatric massage technique of “resting hands” over or on the baby while improvising or singing precomposed lullabies. Themes I look for are safety, holding, caregiving, love and nurturing. The transition here would be sleep, or hopefully, a quiet alert state.

Where Do We Go From Here?

As noted above, this conversation emerged from an off-the-record discussion between about the limits we have recognized in our practices and how we negotiate those limits in the pursuit of best practices with our patients. Looking back on how this conversation evolved, we recognize that follow-up discussion could focus on either (1) the boundaries of music therapy practice in end-of-life care or (2) work with patients experiencing neurological irritability or terminal agitation.

With that in mind, we invite you to share your thoughts, ideas, and experiences regarding either or both of those topics.  In what ways have you questioned the extent to which music therapy can help? Where do you think the constraints of our work are at the end of life or in the spectrum of palliative care? Have you had a time where you wondered if you were really effecting change? When working with neurological irritability or terminal agitation, what approaches have you used? What theoretical constructs have been helpful for you? Please leave a comment and keep the dialogue going!

Caregivers, Countertransference

I Never Met Her: Holding the Space for the Caregiver

We are very pleased to publish this guest post from Leah Oswanski, MA, LPC, MT-BC about her outpatient work with caregivers of individuals with cancer. Leah offers us insight into her clinical practice in addition to the personal and professional processes that informed the work. It is a powerful reflection on that intersection of personal and professional experiences that are unavoidable and, when utilized mindfully, deeply enrich the therapeutic experience for both therapist and client. Please feel free to share any thoughts or reflections of your own in the comments section, and thank you as always for being a part of this community.

Continue reading “I Never Met Her: Holding the Space for the Caregiver”


The Balance of Mental Health and Medical Health at the End-of-Life

How do we “know” mental illness?

Recently, a client I had been working with since January disappeared for a month with neither warning nor explanation. When he re-appeared, it was discovered he had been in a psychiatric hospital to treat chronic depression recently exacerbated by a month-long medical hospitalization. Upon returning home from that medical hospitalization, he had been unable to regain a sense of self or stability, and ultimately his mental health decompensated.

It was a stark reminder that mental illness is neither cowed nor tamed by advanced medical illness, and that a decline in physical resources and health may provide opportunity for parallel declines in mental/psychic resources and health. Our cultural penchant for infantilizing the elderly or ill with statements of “Oh, he’s so cute!” or “She is such a sweetheart!” perpetuate a belief in an inherent docility to death and dying. This narrative threatens to minimize any continued manifestations of mental illness, placing the already vulnerable at risk of significant decompensation that can rupture any present balance in their daily functioning.

Continue reading “The Balance of Mental Health and Medical Health at the End-of-Life”


The allure of fantasy


Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about fantasy and its role in the therapeutic process. Fantasy, among its other benefits as a force in therapy, is uniquely situated to challenge entrenched cognitive structures, bound emotional energy, and divisive power structures. Comprised of fundamental human features (e.g., imagination, creativity, etc.) essential to personal foundations of wellness, fantasy is a necessary ingredient in a person-centered practice. Fantasy plays a significant component in my current work, exploring such questions as “Who would I be without this illness?” and “How can I be a health, integrated person in the future even if this illness persists?” in order to foster an imaginative process that creates possibilities and activates potentialities. Continue reading “The allure of fantasy”