Members of Santa Fe’s Circle of Love play music to terminally ill patients in an effort to relieve pain and help them experience a peaceful, conscious death.
Not many musicians prefer their audience fall asleep during a performance. But when the three members of the Circle of Love play their harps and softly sing, they love seeing their audience of one drift into such relaxation that he or she nods off a little.
On a recent afternoon, Maria Hernandez relaxed into her wheelchair, her eyes closed, her head slowly lowering down to the melodic sounds of the harp that filled her living room. It was the 10th time Circle of Love, a nonprofit agency that provides live music at no cost to terminally ill patients, performed a music vigil for Hernandez in her daughter’s home.
Photo Caption: L to R, Music-thanatologists Margaret Pasquesi, Tony Pederson, and Judith Shotwell, near El Rito, NM
Her daughter, Betty Scannapieco, peeked her head around the corner, listening to the music in between cleaning out closets in preparation for Christmas visits. “I think this is better than yoga,” she remarked.
Judith Shotwell founded Circle of Love in 1995 but aside from visiting help, she has been the only person playing 20 to 25 music vigils each month. This month, she is joined by two more thanatologists—students of death, dying and the psychological mechanisms used to deal with the process—who graduated from the only school in the country for music-thanatology, the School of Music-Thanatology in Missoula, Mont.
The sole focus of music-thanatology, a sub-specialty of palliative medicine, is to provide physical and spiritual care of the dying with prescriptive music. The goal is to relieve acute physiological pain and foster a peaceful or conscious death.
“Just the sound of the music within the home creates a matrix of beauty and safety,” Shotwell explained. “Families have said we can be together and feel everything together, but we don’t have to use words.”
With three people available to reach out to dying patients, Shotwell expects to be able to expand their services to more nursing homes and St. Vincent Hospital. Currently, they work with Presbyterian Medical Services’ hospice program so they primarily go to people’s homes or nursing homes.
Bee Zollo, a registered nurse with the hospice center, watches how her patients change when Circle of Love conducts an hour vigil with them. One patient had been in a lot of pain and unable to rest; after the music started she fell into a deep sleep.
“I’ve seen people whose faces are tense and uncomfortable and as the music starts, this process of relaxation begins and the tenseness rolls out of the body,” Zollo said.
Because music-thanatology requires a person to do nothing, to just be, family members and caregivers also benefit from the experience. “A lot of caregivers are on task all the time, so to have a real invitation to receive instead of constantly giving and to see their loved one shift into a place of greater comfort of peace and serenity, it does tons for the caregivers,” Shotwell said.
Part of the vision behind Circle of Love is that no one should have to pay for this experience. Shotwell is constantly searching for more grants to support the organization, which receives funding from the McCune, LANL and Frost foundations, New Mexico Arts and St. Bede’s Episcopal Church.
Circle of Love plays for any person diagnosed with a terminal illness, including those who have just learned about their diagnosis. In Missoula, Tony Pederson and Margaret Pasquesi, the two new music-thanatologists, played for trauma victims in a hospital and for patients and family members when doctors terminate the patient’s life support.
“We can be there to let them know the beauty of the world here and the beauty of the world they could go to,” Pasquesi said.
Pederson added: “That’s such a hard time for families, and sometimes music can be a bridge so there’s not that awful silence, and the music can be a gentle presence.”
Performing music vigils is not as simple as it may seem. First of all, it’s not a performance like you would hear from a professional musician. Music-thanatologists call their repertoire thematic material or a collection of tools, rather than songs. They shape their music around their patients’ breathing, pulse rate and temperature. If patients are in pain and breathing short, shallow breaths, a thanatologist works with the music to make the patients’ breaths longer and slower to help them rest.
“It’s important that the music is live so you can respond to every change a patient makes,” Pasquesi said.
When Pasquesi led the music during a vigil for Hernandez, she intently studied Hernandez’s body posture, slowing the music down as Hernandez was lulled by the sound.
Scannapieco, Hernandez’s daughter, said her mother looks forward to their visits because she feels so peaceful afterwards.
“It’s good for the soul,” Scannapieco said.