By Sister Susan Pohl, OSB
“Music is well said to be the speech of angels…. It brings us near to the infinite,” are the words of Thomas Carlyle, a 19th-century philosopher. As a devout Christian, he was perhaps inspired by Ephesians 5:19: “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.”
These words have inspired me to use music and spiritual hymns to bring healing, hope, and peace to the hundreds of persons to whom I have ministered during 23 years as a certified chaplain in hospitals, nursing homes and hospice houses. I accompany myself, gently strumming my autoharp. I would like to share just a few of the many “amazing graces” that have occurred over the years.
I have used hymns and their lyrics with special meaning when visiting patients. In “life review” conversations, I encourage discussion of possible applications of a hymn’s words and phrases to various moments of a person’s life. One might call it a “musical journey” into the life experiences of the person. Such conversation often brings unexpected insights and even peaceful resolution to some difficult memories.
Singing at the bedside of hospice patients, often surrounded by family members gathered for their final time of quiet love and last words, has been the scene of many “surprises” both to me and to family members. Even the most stoic of those gathered will often be moved to feelings of tearful joy to witness the last words or gestures of a non-responsive patient. I am also happy to be an instrument of providing good memories of their loved one’s final journey.
As I sang “In the Garden” at the bedside of a barely responsive hospice patient, whose grieving adult children surrounded her, she was able to move her lips silently to the refrain: “He walks with me, and he talks with me.” The sons and daughters were nudging one another and pointing to her moving lips as they smiled. One of the sons who was sobbing audibly suddenly grew silent. At the end of the hymn, their Mom quietly took a deep breath and died smiling. I then heard myself softly speaking: “She walked with Jesus and talked with Jesus right into his arms.” There was a general nodding and smiling and tears of joy as they bent to kiss their Mom who had been welcomed into his arms.
In two separate instances, I was singing at the bedside of hospice patients whose families were gathered to spend their last moments with their Dad. As I sang I could see there was no physical response, just quiet, slow and shallow breathing. I knew from previous visits, that their favorite hymn during their illness was “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.” So I sang this hymn softly, and as I came to the last line of the last verse: “Precious Lord, Take my hand, lead me home…” the dying men smiled, raised their hands heavenward high into the air, and held them there for some time! This final witness of these good Christian fathers to their children was a priceless testimony to a faith-filled life and a challenge to those left behind.
A man whose favorite hymn was “The Old Rugged Cross” sang it together with me many times. When I was summoned to his bedside in his home as he lay unresponsive with family gathered, I offered to sing his song. When we had discussed the lyrics about “laying down his trophies” he used to point to the large framed picture of his World War II medals that he would someday exchange for a crown. As I came to that last line of the refrain, the unresponsive man broke in with full voice … “and exchange it someday for a crown.” The family rejoiced, amid tears. They never heard his voice again; he died a few hours later.
One final memory was created for a family gathered in the hospice house as their mother lay dying of cancer that had destroyed the lower part of her face. She could still “smile” with her eyes. She and I had practiced this “surprise” for her family. They propped her up and I put a pillow on her lap where I laid my auto harp. I gave her a large felt pick to strum the chords, which I pressed as I sang “How Great Thou Art.” She strummed with exuberant energy, looking around at each family member with “smiling eyes” that seemed to say: “Look at me!” The family members were overwhelmed and joyfully gave her hugs and praise.
Yes, music therapy and music ministry are on the rise nationally and are offered in thousands of healthcare facilities in the United States. I am happy to be a little part of this growing ministry of healing and memory-making for families.
Sr. Susan Pohl, of Rapid City, SD, ministers at Westhills Retirement Village and Healthcare Facility and Clarkson Health Care Facility, both in Rapid City.