The first time Loraine McCarthy played a harp for a dying person was in a Springfield, Oregon, nursing home. When she arrived the nurses said the patient’s death wasn’t imminent. He probably had a few weeks left but he had no family, was totally alone and extremely afraid. She walked in with her harp; she could see the fear in his eyes.
McCarthy briefly spoke to the man before asking him to lie back and relax, to let the music take him wherever it wanted. She began to play, he began to relax and, after awhile, when she thought he was asleep, she picked up her harp to leave. “I got to the door and he called me back,” McCarthy says. “I took his hand and he thanked me and said he was so grateful for the music and the relaxing half-hour.” He died later that day.
For almost a decade, McCarthy played the harp for the dying as a founding member of Strings of Compassion. Along with Sister Vivian Ripp, McCarthy started the Eugene-based organization in 1997 at Sacred Heart Medical Center at Riverbend. In the 15 years since its inception, the program has helped more than 10,000 men and women. Using harp and vocal performances, Strings of Compassion’s three paid employees try to offer a space of serenity at a dying patient’s bedside.
Their small but important concerts take place five days a week or by appointment. Depending on the individual patient, a vigil (as Strings of Compassion refers to each performance) may be held only once or every week for a year. The service is free of charge; a patient, family member, or friend simply requests a vigil by asking a nurse or by calling the hospital’s pastoral and spiritual care services.
“I’m kind of the mother figure,” McCarthy says of the program. During her time at Strings of Compassion (McCarthy retired in 2004) she estimates she helped more than 900 people. “I am kind of the oldest living music thanatologist,” she adds.
The field of music thanatology uses vocal and instrumental performances as therapy to fulfill the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the dying. Using music as medicine relies on the harpist or vocalist’s knowledge of what people need as their lives end. Because of this, Strings of Compassion’s music thanatologists tailor each vigil to the specific patient. They judge the tempo and tone of a performance by observing the patient’s vital signs like heart rate and body temperature. By understanding the process of dying, music thanatologists hope to create an atmosphere of tranquility, love, kindness, beauty, and peace that helps the patient pass on more easily.
“Strings of Compassion has affected the many families and loved ones who have been present at a vigil,” says Jane Franz, a harpist and the program’s coordinator since 2001. “The music ripples out into the community long after the patient has died.” Sometimes the positive influence of a vigil even helps do away with long-held family tension, adds McCarthy.
“I have seen the music create a harmony among all of the family members,” she says. “Somehow by the end of it they have resolved a lot of issues within themselves. They are ready to work together. It’s just obvious in the way you see them move together.”
When it started, Strings of Compassion was solely comprised of McCarthy and Ripp. The two harpists would often play vigils together. But as demand for their performances grew so did the program, which is now offered at Eugene’s Sacred Heart Hospice and the PeaceHealth Cottage Grove Medical Center. In the future, Franz hopes to introduce Strings of Compassion to all of the PeaceHealth medical centers, as well as to Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver, Washington.
The knowledge needed to be a music thanatologist for Strings of Compassion, however, doesn’t come from simply showing up at the hospital. McCarthy and Franz both attended college to study music thanatology; Franz has since started a music thanatology program at Lane Community College. Students looking to be certified by the Music-Thanatology Association International spend two years fine-tuning their musical talents and communication skills. By the end of the program, each student serves 324 hours at various hospitals and hospices working alongside a professional music thanatologist.
Although education is an important aspect of music thanatology, school a necessity, and experience invaluable, there is no way to prepare for death. Typically, Strings of Compassion receives two types of calls, McCarthy says. The first, a processing call, often involves patients who need help accepting their situations. The second, an imminent call, means “you have to go right now—stat, get there, this person is dying.” Sometimes, however, a patient thought to be far from death passes on sooner than expected, a lesson illustrated by McCarthy’s first vigil.
As the program coordinator for Strings of Compassion, Franz faces the presence of death nearly every day. As a result, Franz says death no longer frightens her. The music vigil is, she adds, “a place where I can give my ego something sacred to do.” While playing the harp at a vigil, she has witnessed scenes that reinforce her belief in the power of both music thanatology and Strings of Compassion.
Once Franz played a vigil for a dying mother as the patient’s adult son and daughter sat by the bed. Suddenly, blood began spilling from the mother’s mouth. The children stood watching while a nurse came in to suction away the blood; she explained that it was a common occurrence for the woman’s illness. The nurse then called in an aid to help remove the patient’s hospital gown so she could be cleaned.
“These adult children stood watching as their mother’s naked body was cleaned and clothed,” Franz says. “It was obviously a shock for them.”
Once the nurse left, Franz started playing, hoping to offer something beautiful in contrast to the medical scene that had just unfolded. Soon the patient’s mouth began to pool with blood again. This time the son, no longer stunned, stepped quickly to the suction tube and moved to his mother’s side. His sister took the tube and said, “We can do this.”
Throughout it all, music accompanied like a gentle stream of sound, soothing and supporting. During the evening, the daughter told Franz, “Please don’t leave us. Please keep playing. It makes this bearable.” That night, with a calm countenance, the patient died. “Her children wept,” Franz recalls. “They said how glad they were and how thankful they were not to be left alone, to have the music present throughout.”
Death seems to come in a sterile environment, with white walls and patients slowly sinking into hospital beds. We imagine the hospital food, green slop on silver trays, nurses in blue uniforms, and the sounds of coughing from the next room. The sheer notion of dying leaves many paralyzed; some consider it their biggest fear. What a lot of us don’t realize and what Strings of Compassion musicians try to show is death doesn’t have to be like that.
Franz believes that Strings of Compassion gives life to patients long after they’ve died. “Loved ones often speak of their experiences to others in social circles,” Franz says. “It is not unusual for me to be stopped in a public place by someone who says, ‘I recognize you. You played for my grandmother.’” Moments like these, Franz says, show her how “blessed I am to be able to serve my fellow humans in this way.”