A peaceful, blessed goodbye

“Music is well said to be the speech of angels; in fact, nothing among the utterances allowed to man is felt to be so divine. It brings us near to the infinite.” – Thomas Carlyle

Many people at Providence have heard, or heard about, harpists who visit the rooms of patients at the end of life to comfort them with beautiful melodies. It’s true that these “music-thanatologists” use harp and voice at bedside vigils for those nearing death, but they do much more than that. They are heirs to an ancient healing art, and are an integral part of the Providence health care team.

Exactly 10 years ago, Providence became the first health system in the nation to have a full-time music-thanatology program. In 2001, certified practitioners were first hired at Providence St. Vincent and Providence Portland medical centers, thanks to gifts from Providence donors. In the years since, many Providence hospitals and hospices have hired music-thanatologists to serve their patients and families.

Laura Moya (pictured above) has offered her Celtic harp playing and singing at Providence St. Vincent since the music-thanatology program began. She says that the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese and many other cultures incorporated music into their healing practices at all stages of life and used it to ease the transition at the end of life. “They knew music is not just entertainment,” Moya says. “It creates a supportive structure to help people cope with illness, and to help them realize a peaceful, blessed death. Dying is about being in the present moment, letting go of your past. Our music can do that.”

These practitioners have extensive clinical training and are important members of the pastoral care and palliative care interdisciplinary teams. With sensitivity and skill, they tailor the music to respond to each patient’s changing physical condition and the emotional and spiritual needs of those present. They assess each patient, noting pulse, breathing and other vital signs. They also carefully observe the patient’s response to their playing, so they can modify their playing accordingly.

Video: Providence music-thanatologists

“Music-thanatology is a discipline that aligns beautifully with the care that we provide in Providence because it addresses the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the patient and the patient’s loved ones,” says Theresa Vithayathil Edmonson, interim chief Mission integration officer for Providence. “Through the prescriptive use of voice and the sounds from the harp, the music-thanatologist can provide comfort that is evident in the patient’s face. The music also provides support to the loved ones gathered.”

Providence also offers a music-thanatology clinical internship program, with one student mentored by Laura Moya at Providence St. Vincent and another by Andrea Partenheimer at Providence Portland. Internships generally last 18 months or longer.

Music-thanatologists focus on quality of life and a holistic approach to those who are recently diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, as well as those who are living through the challenges of terminal illness – long hospital stays, difficulty sleeping and severe pain issues.

“We can be there for every stage,” Partenheimer says, “from palliative care to the very end of life in a vigil. We’re here and available for the whole journey.”

To give
Providence St. Vincent Medical Foundation’s Spiritual Care Fund
Providence Portland Medical Foundation’s Spiritual Care Endowment Fund