Letter from a Hospice Volunteer


I have been volunteering for six months in a hospice environment. A friend of mine recently loaned me a pentatonic children’s lyre which has seven strings and is quite small. When I go from one retirement home to another, I often have my hands full and cannot carry a larger instrument. In addition, I am not a musician at all, so this simple instrument is not intimidating. When I sit on my own couch and play the seven strings of the children’s lyre in various combinations, I experience a change coming over the room. My experience is that the room becomes ‘’living” in a new way, filled with plant-like forms or forms in movement. Normally our speech and most sound creates a mineral-like effect on the air. However, there are new possibilities for both speech and music when either is directed toward healing others through one of the therapeutic arts.

On one recent occasion, I entered a room where a patient was in great pain, moaning and panting. The nurse at the bedside was flustered and struggling to administer some basic care that needed to be done, but the patient was afraid to be touched. I asked if I could try to play the lyre for the patient. The nurse responded, “Frankly, I am willing to try anything”. I sat right on the end of the patient’s bed where she could see me and started to play a few tones. She stopped moaning and looked at me and the lyre. The nurse waited a few minutes herself and then proceeded to clean the patient's mouth and eyes and administer other basic care. The patient was completely cooperative and silent. The nurse did a few other things and then said to me, “This is amazing! Can you stay for a few more minutes while I locate her doctor?” I agreed. I played for another 15 minutes, and the patient went into a deep sleep. A nurse came in again and said that they had decided not to disturb her and wanted her to sleep.

On another occasion, I entered a large room where four elderly ladies were sleeping, each in a hospital bed with partial curtain drapes between them. This is the cheapest kind of room in the facility, but on this day, the room was glorious. Each woman had some kind of colorful, knitted blanket at the end of her bed. The sun was pouring into the room, the sky outside the window was crystal blue, and the snow was sparkling white. I noticed several large and beautiful pine trees standing like guardians just beyond the window. I sat in a chair and played the children’s lyre while they slept. The sun warmed my back, and the breathing of the four women filled the room, along with the living sounds of the lyre. There was no death to be felt anywhere in this space at that moment. When I arose to leave, the woman in the bed closest to my chair opened her eyes, smiled, and waved gently to me as I gathered my belongings. I smiled and nodded back, my hands and my heart full of appreciation for these beautiful and brave souls gathered together at the end of their lives in this sunny room in southern New Hampshire.