Yumiko Sato Music Therapy

Journey Into Wholeness

Music expresses what words can not

The mood at hospice was somber when I arrived on the sunny spring day.  My colleague told me that it had been a very sad morning, because one of our new patients just had a visit from his son in jail.  My heart sank, thinking about what this must have meant for them.

In the U.S prisoners are typically given two choices when their loved ones are nearing death: One is to go see them before they die, and the other is to attend the funeral.  They can’t do both, so they must choose either option.  The patient’s son came to visit him while he was at hospice, which meant that it was the last time they would see each other, and that the son wouldn’t be able to attend the funeral.

I wondered how it must have been like to come see your dying father in an orange jump suit, handcuffed, and escorted by police.  How humiliating and sad this must have been for him.  And for the dying man it had to be heartbreaking to say good-bye to his son in this way.  This was a sad situation for everyone involved including hospice staff and volunteers.

John was a 49-year-old man who had suffered from multiple strokes.  He was a home care patient, which meant that hospice staff went to his home to provide services.  But he came to the hospice inpatient center for a few days so that his son in jail could come for a visit.

When I went to see John in the afternoon, he was lying in bed, looking outside the window.  It was only when I began to introduce myself to him and ask him questions I realized that John couldn’t speak – he had lost his ability to speak due to multiple strokes.

John managed to express in gesture that he used to play guitar.  When I asked if he would like me to play music for him, he nodded.  So I began by playing, “You’re My Sunshine” on a guitar, while John tried to hold back his tears.

After the song he expressed in gesture that he had not seen his son for 3 years, and that it was emotional to see his son that morning.  He gestured hugs and pointed his heart several times.  John knew that he would never see his son again.  Even though he couldn’t speak, it was clear he was in such pain.  John sobbed while trying to convey his feelings.

After a while John stopped crying and pointed a piece of paper with a phone number on a table.  He gestured me to call the number, so I did.  The phone rang, and the person who answered it was John’s wife.

“Oh, he really likes music.” She said, when I introduced myself to her.  “He had a rough day today… Thank you for being there.” She said.

John was once again gesturing something to me, and I gathered that he wanted me to play music for his wife.  When I asked him about that, he nodded.  So I handed the phone to him, and he held it as close to me as possible with his limited mobility.

I chose the song “Love Me Tender,” because John seemed to love his wife very much but could no longer tell her that in words.  When I sang it, John cried.  His emotions were intense and raw.  When the song ended, I felt that he and his wife needed some privacy, so I decided to step outside for a while.  As I was leaving the room I heard him say, “ I… lo..love… you” to his wife.  I had never heard anyone say those words with such effort and determination before or since.

Later the day I went back to see John.  He smiled and mouthed the word, “Thank you.”  He went back home a few days later.

There are times no words can appropriately express how we feel.  In the case of John this was even truer, because he couldn’t speak.  What seemed to offer comfort for him on that difficult day was the love he shared with his wife, and the song “Love Me Tender” reflected that.

John’s story never left me, because he showed how music could express when words failed.  As Victor Hugo said, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.”

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5 comments on “Music expresses what words can not

  1. Teal Ashes
    December 17, 2013

    This is beautiful. Heartbreaking, but beautiful.

  2. Broccoli
    January 14, 2014

    So heartbreaking… As a med student interested in the field of terminal care, I find your articles very interesting and touching. There are obviously limits to what medicine can provide, and it’s very comforting to know that music can sometimes bring peace to people when nothing else can. Thank you for sharing!

    • Yumi
      January 15, 2014

      Thank you so much for your comment. I think we’ll need more doctors to specialize in hospice and palliative care in the future. Best wishes to your study!

  3. John Dougill
    September 8, 2014

    Beautifully written! You have a real gift for expressing profound feelings in a lucid manner. It’s elevating and heartwrenching at the same time…

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This entry was posted on December 16, 2013 by in End-of-Life Music Therapy and tagged , , , , .
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