Yumiko Sato Music Therapy

Journey Into Wholeness

Do people know when they’re dying?

flower in saipan 2 (640x360)

Do people know when they’re dying? My patients often say, “I want to die,” when they’ve grown tired of living with terminally illnesses.  Sometimes their words change from “I want to die” to “I am dying” as if they knew their fates.  Such patients tend to die within a few days. I don’t know how this happens, but even those with impaired cognitive abilities seem to sense their approaching death.

When I was a music therapy intern at hospice in North Carolina, I met a patient whom I’ll call Herb.  He was a former jazz singer suffering from the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease.  Herb was often restless and sometimes combative.  He had lost his ability to speak, except for occasional mumbling, and his ability to understand words, which made it difficult for anyone to communicate with him. He was very confused to the point he could no longer remember his daughters’ name. I imagined how scary it must have been for him to wake up every morning, not knowing where he was or who he was.  But there was one thing he still remembered – music from his past.

When I sang old tunes, such as “What a Wonderful World,” Herb would calm down and smile.  At the end of each song he clapped loudly, even though I told him he didn’t have to do that.  Through music we were able to make a meaningful connection.  I thought this was a small miracle, but what followed was even more unexpected.

One afternoon I had just finished my session with Herb and was getting ready to leave the room, when he stopped me and said, “I’m going to sing for you today.” He grinned like a mischievous child.  I was shocked, because it had been a long time since I had heard him speak so clearly, and because singing was one thing he had always refused to do, saying “I can’t sing anymore.”

As Herb began singing a slow jazz song in his low voice, the words came effortlessly out of a man who recently struggled to put together a sentence. He was out of tune, but I could tell he had once been a great singer.  When he finished, I clapped for him, as he always did for me. He looked at me and smiled proudly. At that moment I saw Herb for who he really was – a jazz singer whose life was filled with music, a navy veteran who fought during WWII, a family man who raised his daughter alone after his beloved wife died young.  Beyond the terrible disease, there was a whole person.

But why did he decide to sing on that day?  I was puzzled by his unexpected behavior.

Two days later Herb died suddenly. His death surprised everyone including the hospice staff and me, because he hadn’t shown any signs of decline in the past few weeks.  His daughter became very upset about the news of his death, but when the nurse told her that two days before he had sang a song during the music therapy session, she calmed down and said, “Dad had his favorite jazz song he used to sing all the time.  I think that may be the song he sang.”

Did Herb know he was dying, if not consciously, then deep in his unconscious mind? After having met countless patients like Herb, I’ve come to believe that he did, and that people who are dying have an inner awareness of their own impending deaths. Perhaps it was this awareness that promoted Herb to sing on that day. I’ll never know it for sure. But one thing I know is that his song became the last gift for his daughter, giving her comfort in knowing he was himself again even for a brief moment. It was a gift for me too, because it taught me the mystery of dying.

*** Click here to sign up for a free newsletter.

4 comments on “Do people know when they’re dying?

  1. Rose Kato
    June 9, 2014

    I just remember my brother telling me that our grandma suffering from Alzheimer’s looked at him intently just a few days before her death. It had never happened before. We are sure she knew she was dying. I liked your article. It made me think a lot of things. Thank you!

  2. John Dougill
    September 8, 2014

    That’s a beautiful posting, and very touching in a way. And it says something very profound about the power of song and its ability to affect the human brain…

  3. José Assis
    October 19, 2016

    You have the ability to share important facts of life, Yumi! Even the apparently small ones for much of us, are perhaps the keys of life and life after death for others. Thank you again, Yumi! God bless you as you do bless others by playing and listening.

    • Yumi
      October 23, 2016

      Thank you for your kind words, Jose.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


This entry was posted on April 7, 2014 by in End-of-Life Music Therapy, Hospice and tagged , , .
Follow Yumiko Sato Music Therapy on WordPress.com