The process encompasses memories, reminiscence, nostalgia and meaning-making. Intentionally using music at end of life is a helpful means of assisting in this work.
Music is cross-coded into the events of our lives. It can act as a diary, chronicling life passages, significant moments, or special relationships. Songs may express universal truth. In this way, a song may give voice to what is going on in a dying person’s mind and may represent feelings, desires, longings, values, or beliefs. Songs used in this way may help to facilitate reminiscence or the re-telling of life stories.
Music may also be a legacy piece that encapsulates valued experiences, sentiments or personal history. A palliative music therapy colleague who uses songwriting in her practice composed an opera with one of her patients as a means of legacy. He was an avid opera-lover, so this seemed an appropriate way to help him express and record those things he wanted to remember and wanted others to remember about him. The seven acts were complete with recitative (the part of the opera that moves the facts along) and arias (songs more lyrical in nature and dwelt on thoughts, feelings, and larger themes.)
I’ve written several legacy songs for people. The most recent is the one written for Dr. Larry Librach to honour his life and work amongst us all. Larry asked me to record the song as he wanted to include it in a legacy box he was creating for his children and grand-children. The song was part of his story.
While you may or may not be confident in songwriting as an activity towards legacy work, here are several other ways you can integrate music into end of life care practice towards promoting legacy and meaning.
1. Conversation starter – Use a song to begin a conversation about a life story. It may be chosen by the person who is dying, or a family member and represent a significant milestone or memory. Or it may be something you choose. Or you may choose a song that helps to open up conversations about the deeper questions like, will I be remembered? What has my life meant to me? To others? Some popular songs that might work in this context are: I Will Remember You (Sarah McLachlan), Wind Beneath My Wings (Bette Middler), In My Life (Beatles), Hero (Mariah Carey), Only Hope (Switchfoot).
2. Lifesong – Invite the person who is dying to pick a song that might be like a musical epitaph. What song expresses who I am? How I’ve tried to live? What I value? What I believe? Listen to recordings of this song. Get someone to perform it live. Write out the words and put it beside the person’s bed.
3. Soundtrack – Legacy activity may include journaling, video-making, having personal historians write stories, quilt-making. Music may serve as a soundtrack to support any of these activities. Thoughtfully chosen music, especially preferred by the person who is dying, may support a narrative video for example and provide contextually appropriate music.
4. Playlist – Recently, a friend of mine who was an organist by profession, was dying. In the last several weeks of her life, all she wanted to hear was the work of J.S. Bach, particularly his organ works. The music itself became what she wanted to remember about herself but also the legacy she wanted to be remembered by.
5. Decade Diary – Particularly with older persons who are dying, a song representing each decade of life may serve as a life soundtrack and lifesong all in one. This decade diary may also be a way to remember a loved one at a celebration of life gathering. Recently, I was at a funeral for the father of a friend. They had structured the remembering service around six of his favourite songs. In the case of my own father, music was very important to him – he planned all of the music at his own funeral. This was his final tangible expression to us of what mattered to him.
Bev Foster is the Executive Director of the Room 217 Foundation, a registered Canadian charity dedicated to caring for the whole person with music. www.room217.ca.