Welcoming A New Year At Hospice

I hoped all morning that I would come up with something profound to write in honor of the first day of the new year. The start of a brand new year should bring some kind of profound revelation to guide the unfolding days and weeks ahead. Instead, it is an ordinary winter Tuesday, gray and rain soaked. Being Tuesday, I pack up harp and bench and music stand and drive with windshield wipers flapping on high to my regular 11 a.m. playing date at the hospice unit.

Two weeks ago, the last time I played, every bed on the unit was filled. The nurses were frantically busy with family members touring the unit for last minute hoped-for admissions for loved ones, and with arranging the discharges of patients who were now just stable enough to spend Christmas at home. Today it’s a calmer, quieter vibe. The Christmas tree is still up, lit, and sparkling. Crimson poinsettias in the windows are a brilliant contrast to the even darker rain clouds blowing by outside. Only half the rooms are occupied, and the staff have time to look up from their charting as I roll the harp by the nurses station and wish them a Happy New Year.

The room at the end of the hall, closest to where I play, has a sign on the closed door: “Do not disturb – patient resting.” I walk back to the nurses station and ask if I should set up the harp somewhere else on the unit, but the nurse assures me that the sign is to help the family limit visitors, and that I will be fine playing in my usual place. I am on my third piece when I hear the door open, and ten or so minutes later a tall man, dressed in a red plaid shirt and blue jeans wrinkled from too many nights spent sleeping in a hospital recliner, walks from the room to my side.

I smile hello and ask if my playing is too loud for his loved one, let him know that I can move down the hall if they need quiet. That’s not why he’s here. Instead, he says that the music is beautiful. His eyes fill as he tells me he’s there with his mother. She is near her end, and is not often coherent, but she hears the harp and smiles. He apologizes for the tears now finding their way down the creases on his cheeks. I don’t know if I can find the right words in response, but manage “Thank you,” and say that I hope the music will ease them both.

I’ve played at the hospice unit nearly every week since August. Patients have passed away while I was playing. Family members occasionally thank me as they walk by. Mostly I play in faith that Music will ease grieving hearts and tired spirits, without feedback that it makes a difference. But today, I feel consciously a part of this patient’s and family’s end-of-life journey.

I play longer than usual, play more slowly, more deliberately, with more air and space between the phrases of old Celtic tunes that give voice to love, longing, and heartache. Music is the thread connecting me to this family, to this mother and son who suddenly are no longer strangers, but instead are fellow travelers on this turning wheel of birth, life and death.

As I pack up to leave, the son steps outside of his mother’s room once more, to say thank you, to say again the the music was beautiful. This time, I think to tell him that it is an honor to play for them both, and that they will be in my thoughts today.

And so they are. As my new year begins with wonder and excitement about the unknown adventures that are ahead, her new year is ending. Soon she will travel off, as my friend Beth says, “to see what happens next.” Her son’s new year begins with the journey through grief and sadness, trudging through the days and weeks until the memories that pain him with reminders of all he’s lost transform into memories that bring him quiet joy.

It doesn’t sound wise or profound to write the simple truth that we’re all riding the same bus, on the same journey, to the same destination. It’s easy for me to forget that simple truth, to get caught up in my own story, and to feel isolated and alone in its plot line. But today Music won’t let me forget. Today, Music spins the thread that connects me to a larger story, a story of mothers and sons, a story of love and connection and learning how to say goodbye, where even a stranger with a harp has a part, and where I suddenly belong.

26 thoughts on “Welcoming A New Year At Hospice

  1. I’ve been thinking for a while about what to write in response to your post… 🙂 I think you are doing great work, and I also think that you are very brave for doing it. Our society is so much geared to ‘life’ and ‘fighting to stay alive’ whereas in a hospice, it’s all about finally letting people go and almost welcoming death. I’ve seen that even the dying have trouble releasing their grasp on life- until the end, they will wait for family members to arrive and even then they are afraid to ‘go on’ to their next big adventure. And I think that our society does a very bad job at preparing people for that ‘adventure’- it’s inevitable, it will happen to everyone, yet we avoid talking about it and we think it’s too heavy a subject – even doctors have trouble talking about death and dying and doctors & nurses who specialize exclusively in terminal care are extremely rare.

    So it is very special and admirable that you, as a non medical ‘lay person’ took up the calling to be there for people and their families in the final stages of someone’s life – a ‘place’ almost everyone avoids. And I think your presence also matters a lot to the healthcare workers – sometimes, working in such an institution feels a bit like ‘we’re the only ones who see this, no one cares’. Outside the building, life goes on, only those inside are witness to the ‘departures’. Doctors in hospitals etc. often delay preparing patients their family for their final journey and so the healthcare workers in the hospice often have to deal with unmet expectations. It’s a lot easier to start a treatment than to withhold it. And we notice that there is a lot we can’t do. We can try to alleviate pain/nausea/delirium and perhaps eventually make sure people are unconscious if the symptoms can’t be treated – but there are few things you can say to make people truly ‘comfortable’ when dying. There used to be a role for religion in this, but what do you say to a non religious person who is suddenly afraid of hell?

    I think such situations are at the heart of terminal care – there are few people who can easily let go of life and it is our job as healthcare workers to help them to not to be afraid, to help them accept death, even though the mental part is the hardest part. I’m a Christian but when standing at the bed of someone who is about to die, all notions of religion and righteousness disappear instantly – the death bed shows me that this is so much bigger than human concept and interpretations. (I can’t believe in ‘hell’ anymore. Everyone who does, should go volunteer at an hospice!!!)
    In the end, it is all about just being there, offering words of compassion and love. And often, words don’t suffice. That’s where music comes in – music can fill the gaps where words fail.

    Anyway, so that’s why a post like yours really touches me. You’re also ‘there’, in that supposedly ‘scary’ place where usually only ‘paid professionals’ dare to venture; you’re maybe not in the rooms, but the patient & family can hear the music, they can hear that you care and they can find comfort in something that transcends spoken words. And I think that that is one of the greatest gifts someone can receive, a voluntary gift, not by obligation but straight from your heart.


    1. Thank you so much for your heartfelt, thoughtful comment. Yes, I often feel that it is the nurses and other hospice unit staff who I am helping the most by playing there. Today six staff stopped to say thanks, including a chaplain and a social worker along with the nurses and assistants. I figure if I can make their hearts a little more peaceful that I am also helping the patients.
      I love what you said about “when standing at the bed of someone who is about to die, all notions of religion and righteousness disappear instantly…” I was with a very dear friend as he died, having been the one who made the decision to take him off the vent. Being in that room with him as he died is the most sacred place I’ve ever been, and as you said, much bigger than our ideas and the stories we tell ourselves because we are afraid of death. That experience changed me deeply, and I think is what makes it possible for me to be a part of the hospice unit now. For I know that at the end of our common bus ride, at the end of our journey, all we really have, and all that really matters, is sharing our presence with each other.


  2. Beautiful Janet! Simply beautiful!!!! I believe your hands were made more for the harp than djembe. You could bring rhythm and movement to life on djembe, but you’ve found your soul on the harp! Hope our pathes cross again sometime soon!


    1. Thank you, Cathy. I am definitely where I belong with the harp, though it took drumming to get me here. Thanks for reading the blog and leaving comments. I hope you will drop by again! Janet


  3. I visit my dear 88 year old Mother twice a day who is wheelchair bound and barely able to hold any kind of conversation due to several strokes. She is doing pretty well health wise considering her limitations. My own life has been placed on hold the last 3years and I often struggle to look for the gifts hidden in this journey. I look for ways to provide comfort to not only my mother but the other residences in the nursing home. Your post was very inspiring to me and encouraging for me to keep up my harp practice so I too can someday find the confidence to play and offer the comfort of music in a nursing home. I lack confidence now but will soon take the step of bringing my harp to play for my mother. Thank you for writing of your experiences in this inspiring story.


    1. You are providing such loving care for your mother. Sharing your harp with that same love will give you confidence. I find that even the simplest music played with heart is appreciated, and is enough to ease troubled spirits. I am glad this post encouraged you to keep on with the harp practice. You will have a beautiful gift to share with your mother and the people around her.


  4. This is such a beautiful post. Your feelings for music are so heartfelt I can feel them all the way over here. 🙂 Your music is touching so many people in a positive way and that is so wonderful.


  5. Oh Janet…What a beautiful shining light you are! What an inspiration! Thank you for all that you do. I am touched and moved beyond words..I wish there was something deep and profound I could say here…all I can muster is thank you for being YOU! I feel honored to know you!


  6. First of all, happy new year! Secondly, this was a very touching post, thanks for posting it. I was just wondering, how did you start playing there? I mean, did you offer your services, or did they contact you?


    1. Happy new Year to you too, Eliza. The hospice program has a volunteer program that includes the music ministry. A friend who plays on the hospice unit encouraged me to apply to be a music volunteer.


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