Christmas music can be some of the most poignant to bring into hospice and end-of-life settings. This music can carry rich emotional significance for people, regardless of whether they even celebrate Christmas.
Music is a powerful drug, and with it comes powerful side effects. Music therapist Jennifer Buchanan cautions about the risks of Christmas music for mental health, and other studies are showing that the sounds of the season can cause significant stress and unwellness.
In my practice as a bedside music therapist in palliative care, I find that singing Christmas tunes with, or for, a patient and family, can be beautifully intimate. It is also not music I ever introduce lightly
I believe anyone can bring music into their caring relationships in a way that is meaningful and authentic, regardless of whether they are trained musicians. If you find yourself in the room of someone at the end of their lives, and singing a bit of yuletide music is being invited, I encourage you to explore what it’s like to sing together. You don’t have to sing on key
Here are a few of the tunes I have found to be particularly meaningful when sung – or played on instruments – quietly at the bedside:
- Lo How A Rose: sung a cappella, or, played quietly at bedside on the piano, this old German carol brings comfort and hope in tender times.
- O Come Emmanuel: a moody medieval tune about hope in the lowliest of times, I’ve played and sung this slowly and reverently at
bedside, and it seems to meet people in the complexity of their emotions during hospitalization.
- Angels We Have Heard On High: this French carol is famous for its jubilant “Gloria” chorus, though at bedside I usually play it with a subdued, twinkly feel. It seems to invite a gentle shimmer to the room.
- Sans Day Carol: this lesser-known carol is sweet, light, and with a three-four time signature, has a bit of a bounce. Beginning with the opening line “now the holly bears a berry as white as the milk,” the imagery is fresh and sensual.
- Silent Night: the true “lullaby” of carols, Silent Night is tender and intimate, and an almost-guaranteed sing-along. It’s a great closer.
At a time of year where loss and grief can feel the strongest, Christmas music can feel tremendously alienating, or feel like a balm to the soul. I hope you can use the music of the season to come alongside people and express what words alone cannot. Happy holidays!
Sarah Pearson is a music therapist at Grand River Hospital in Kitchener ON, and the program development lead at the Room 217 Foundation.