by Jennifer Pratt-Walter
(VC6 contributor Jennifer Pratt Walter is not only a talented poet and photographer but a dedicated Music Thanatologist. She uses a Celtic harp to help the dying make their transition and the living to deal with their grief. VC asked her to share this aspect of her artistic talent with our community.)
Mr. R, age 90, lives far longer than anyone thought possible. His wife is exhausted. She asks me for “old time hymns” on the harp to help release his hold on life. As I begin “Abide with Me,” she presses her husband’s limp hand, and I realize she still sees him as handsome and kind.
Mrs. M’s daughter has been comatose since a brain injury at age two. Now 21, her body is closing down system by system. The nurses say the mother cannot imagine life without her daughter. As she leaps up in a panic with every cough or pause in breathing, I envision stars awakening out of the night sky. My harp sings an improvisation on “Twinkle, Twinkle.” Starlight rests in the room until her child dies in a couple of hours.
At each bedside I witness a process as powerful and intimate as labor and birth. As a Music Thanatologist, I weave a cradle of sound. The Celtic harp is my loom, my hands the soft yarns, my observations and intuition making a fabric of reverence and peace. I breathe with the patient, poised there on the tenuous threshold between life and the next step, the Mystery. Respiration rate, skin color, facial expression, and muscle movement are cues for where I might lead, or where I might be led.
Sometimes we need a complete song or chord progression drawn from the whole range of the harp. Sometimes I simply repeat an octave or open fifth, or even a single sustained low note glowing like an amber candle in darkness. And sometimes the widening silence between notes is the best prayer for the passing.
Bedside music is for the living as well, the loved ones left behind. I draw on requests and memories, or play something from a particular time period or faith tradition. Often tears start to stream as stoicism yields to emotion. People begin to touch, speak, sing, and even laugh over humorous memories.
I sense grief taking on different energies, led by the music. I have witnessed incredible changes from despair, anger, or regret to a gentler grief that leaves room for healing with the natural resonance of the harp applied therapeutically. Sometimes I sense hearts opening, including my own. I am a witness to the unfathomable Holy. It is my small but powerful ministry. With every Thanatology vigil, I learn, and I am touched or blessed in some way. It is a sacred ritual, this Midwifery of Passing.
I can’t help but shed tears with the mother and grandmother of the 21-year-old girl. You see, my own twins are the same age. Our mutual motherhood paces on with and through and, finally, beyond the harp’s closing notes.