As a music therapist in palliative care, I have been present (with music) for moments of passing and many subsequent memorial services. Finding the appropriate music to hold space for grieving families and to reduce pain for patients can be difficult. Many of my clients are addressing physical or cognitive goals while recovering from brain injury or cancer, and in those sessions they are actively participating in music therapy- moving, singing, improvising, discussing. With patients who are dying or in a lot of pain, music therapy becomes more receptive. I pay attention to their breathing and heart rate monitors, using entrainment to help them physically relax. I improvise quiet music that will distract their attention away from pain, but won’t interrupt the mood of the family or the work of the medical team.
It’s helpful to know what the patient’s preferred music is, and I’ve been so happy to hear that many medical centers and nursing homes are now including this information on intake forms. I like to ask patients or their families how they ‘use’ music- what do they listen to while falling asleep? What music energizes them? What are their musical memories? Having a more complete picture of a client’s ‘musical self’ can help provide them with the comfort that is needed towards the end of life. If your family member has an advance directive, ask them to include this information.
There is often a misconception that only certain music is appropriate or helpful in death and grieving. “Amazing Grace”. Harp music. Bach. All of these are beautiful, and can be helpful, but not for everyone. I have had clients request everything from Disney songs to Pearl Jam at the end of life. If I’ve worked with someone for a long time, we’ll have gone through a musical life review already, so I’ll have an idea of what music might be the most meaningful.
Don’t forget that sometimes, music can bring up negative associations. No matter what music we decide to use, it’s important to pay attention to the patient’s reactions, and adjust. This is easier with live music, because sometimes if I know the lyrics are important, I can adjust the tempo to be a bit more upbeat, which eases some heaviness. Music has so many elements that we are able to adjust in the moment to mirror and change the body rhythms of patients. A person who is dying won’t always be able to tell you what they need, but it’s okay to ask- “is this okay?” “want a different song?” and they might nod. Being comfortable with tears is important, too. Therapists call this ‘holding space’, but for the person crying I call it ‘sitting in the feeling’. Often, the first few notes of music can bring tears to people in the room. This can be a relief- music offers a container for feelings that we’ve been holding inside.
Here are some of my favorite songs that various clients, friends, and myself have recommended for processing grief and loss. A note: when I am working with a client, I don’t typically choose songs that address death directly unless the client requests them. So this list is not a list of suggestions for ‘performing’ to a grieving person or family. If you have the opportunity to make music with a person who is dying, be sure to consider their wishes, their current state, their cultural background, and the presence of other people in the room.
“My Way” by Paul Anka
“Stairway to Heaven” by the O’Jays
“Dream On” by Steven Tyler
“Keep Me In Your Heart” by Warren Zevon
“Blackbird” by the Beatles
“Nimrod” by Edward Elgar
“A Song For You” by Donny Hathaway
“Lucky Old Sun” by Beasley Smith & Haven Gillespie
“Ribbon in the Sky” by Stevie Wonder
“Let That Go” by Tingsek
“Wherever is Your Heart” by Brandi Carlile
“I’ll Follow the Sun” by the Beatles
“Cielito Lindo”, traditional
“Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber
“I Know You By Heart” by Eva Cassidy
“Rivers and Roads” by Head and the Heart
“Forever, for Always, for Love” by Luther Vandross
“Every Mile a Memory” by Dierks Bentley & Brett Beavers
“Keep Me Singing” Van Morrison
“Lotus Flower” by Radiohead
“Think Of Me” by Rosi Golan
“Two Doves” by the Dirty Projectors
End Note: When I die (hopefully at age 120), I’d like this piece of music played at my funeral: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0Ua9xZP6Lw