Journey Into Wholeness
Persons at the end of life can still hear, even though they may not be able to speak or open their eyes. When I tell my patients’ families that hearing is the last sense to go, they often ask, “How do you know they can still hear?”
This is something that hospice workers have known for a long time. Through the years of my work as a hospice music therapist, many patients have demonstrated to me their awareness of sounds at times they’re considered “non-responsive.”
In my first year as a music therapist I met a young lady and her mother at the hospice inpatient center where I worked. We call the daughter, Grace and the patient, Anne.
When I entered the room to greet them, Anne was lying down in bed with her eyes closed and shaking uncontrollably from her head to toe. Grace was sobbing at the bedside. It must have been difficult for her to see her mother in such a condition. Grace told me that Anne had been non-responsive and continuously shaking for the last few days.
I asked Grace if she was interested in music therapy, explaining that music might help provide comfort to Anne. Grace agreed and said that Anne always liked music, especially the old hymns. So I began by singing “In The Garden” on guitar. In the middle of the song, Anne suddenly said, “I hear!” It sounded as if she was using all the energy left in her body to say those words.
“Did you hear that?!” Grace said, jumping out of her chair. Anne was still shaking with her eyes closed. At the end of the song, Grace asked Anne, “Did you like the song?” Anne softened her face and smiled. Grace and I were shocked by Anne’s response to the music.
I continued to sing another hymn, and Anne said again, “I hear!” This time her voice was clearer than the first time, as if she was reassuring us that she was still there. By the end of the song Anne stopped shaking all together.
“I haven’t gone home for the last two days, because I was so worried about Mom. But I feel okay about going home and get some rest now.” Grace said with a smile at the end of the session.
The story of Anne illuminates that dying persons can still hear. Most of them don’t communicate that awareness in the way Anne did, but it’s not uncommon to observe unexpected reactions to music from those who are nearing deaths. The story also shows how music could comfort dying persons and their loved ones. The sense of hearing remains until the end, which gives music therapists a unique role to play in end-of-life care.