Music-thanatology offers melodies to palliate the dying | Music | DW | 15.10.2016
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Music-thanatology offers melodies to palliate the dying

Harps are played for the dying in an unusual form of musical palliative care. How does one of the world's oldest string instruments serve as a comfort during our last moments?

Music-thanatology, a subspecialty of palliative care in which practitioners use harps to calm patients in their final hours, is attempting to counter the fear and anxiety that come with dying. Practitioners say its music can act as a form of pain relief.

Tony Pederson (left in photo), the president of the Music-Thanatology Association International, works with JourneyCare, a hospice organization in Chicago that provides palliative, supportive and end-of-life care to nearly 3,000 patients a day. Pederson told DW that music-thanatology is offered when patients are experiencing pain and symptom-management issues as their deaths approach.

"We're bringing in music to address the physical manifestations of the dying process - connecting music with things like breath, pulse and temperature," Pederson said. "Our main job is to accompany someone through the dying process, and we tailor the music to what is going on physically for the patient." Pederson said just the sight of a harp could be relaxing for some people.

'Really contemplative medium'

The harp dates to at least 3000 BC in Asia, Africa and Europe. Today, there are music-thanatologists practicing in several countries. Though music-thanatologists work in different cultural contexts, each provides a service at the bedside called a "music vigil," in which they play the harp or sing for the benefits for the patients and their loved ones for 30 minutes to an hour.

Pasquesi says the work is important but emotionally difficult

American Musicthanatologist. Margaret Pasquesi.

Margaret Pasquesi (right in photo), another Chicago-based music-thanatologist, told DW that the music can often be as comforting for families and friends as it is for the patients.

"Sometimes people will fall asleep, or sometimes tears will come, and the music just sits and holds them," Pasquesi said. "The music follows the family as well as the patient, so it's a really contemplative medium." She added: "Instead of doing more familiar music like a music therapist would do, I work with elements of music in response to the patient's presenting physiology."

Roberts moved from Australia and learned music-thanatology in the US state of Montana

Australian Musicthanatologist, Peter Roberts.

Peter Roberts packed up his life as a fine furniture salesman in Australia and moved to Montana with his family, where he completed an intensive two-year music-thanatology qualification.

"The whole point of it is to lead people into a comfortable container of silence," Roberts told DW. "It's wonderful to have something of value to offer when nothing else can be done, and when the doctors can do no more."

Roberts plays for a baby in the special care nursery in Geelong

Australian Musicthanatologist, Peter Roberts, playing for a baby in the special care nursery in Geelong (Victoria).

On his return to Australia, Roberts realized that the skills he obtained in the United States had broader applications, and set about playing not only for people facing life-threatening illnesses, but also for premature babies, for people coping with difficult medical procedures and for those dealing with difficult personal issues.

"The healing powers of music have been a source of wonder for centuries," Roberts said. "Music is a noninvasive method of influencing heart rate, breathing quality and physical pain. An essential component to this offering involves bringing an attitude of compassion and an attentive presence that is expressed through music. This may sound a bit mushy to some, but is nonetheless very real."

For as helpful as music-thanatology can be, Pasquesi said, playing for people who are dying can be very challenging.

"It's hard," Pasquesi said. "We’re not working with a marginalized population: We're all going to die. It's facing that on a regular basis."

"A lot of people might ask us how we can be around so much grief, but the reality is that we are around a lot of love," Pasquesi said. "Being around that love is inspiring."

Tune into WorldLink to hear more about music-thanatology.

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