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Carried Away By the Music

A pair of Eugene harpist are rare in using soothing melodies to help the dying ease their grasp on life.

Oregon & the West - April 21st, 2001
By Alice Tallmadge / Correspondant for the Oregonian

Jane Williams is certain her 87-year-old mother had a perfect death. In her last hour she was surrounded by family, friends and music from two harpists who filled her room with a cascade of ancient, soothing melodies.

“The music eased her tremendously. My mother’s whole being relaxed into the bed” said Williams, a nurse at Sacred Heart Medical Center in Eugene. Her mother, Jessie Finch, died 10 minutes after the music ended.

Williams knew that dying is hard work, and that for some, harp music can make the transition easier. What she didn’t expect was how the gentle, penetrating sounds would affect her.

“It was like arms,” she said. “lt was this wonderful thing supporting me and holding me. I don’t have words to say how much it helped.”  The two harpists who played for her mother, Sister Vivian Ripp and Loraine McCarthy, are trained music-thanatologists who work out of the Pastoral Care department at Sacred Heart Medical Center. Both have been trained to use specially selected music to help the dying ease their holds on life.
The women, whose nondenominational vigil is called Strings of Compassion, do not play familiar songs or even well-known religious hymns. “We do not perform,” emphasized Sister Ripp, who belongs to the order of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. “We use the elements of the music to help the person move within and begin to let go.”

“The sense of hearing is the last sense to fade in the dying process,” Sister Ripp said. “Even when a patient appears unresponsive and has ceased speaking, music is able to reach them at a deep level.”

Sister Ripp, 58, and McCarthy, 72, have played more than 550 vigils in the past four years. They play for hospital patients whose prognosis is six months or less, are receiving palliative care and who have a Do Not Resuscitate order. Most often, they hold vigils in the last days of a patient’s life.
During the vigils, Sister Ripp and McCarthy focus their attention on the dying person and the family members present. They choose the music according to what they see.

“Some people, where they are in their grief, aren’t able to hold music that is too intimate,” Sister Ripp said. “Others are able to go into the music in a very deep way, to allow it to bring beauty, a sense of the sacred and relaxation.”

The practice of using music to ease the passage of the dying dates to the 11th century to a monastic order in Cluny, France, where monks would soothe the dying in their infirmaries by singing Gregorian chant.

Gregorian charnt continues to be used in music thanatology because its lack of meter and long breath flow “has a very relaxing effect and helps bring clarity to the mind,” Sister Ripp said.

imagePhoto: Sr. Vivian Ripp

Sister Ripp and McCarthy were trained at the Chalice of Repose Project’s School of Music-Thanatology in Missoula, Montana. The term thanatology is derived from the Greek word for death - thanatos. The project, begun in 1992, was founded by Therese Schroeder-Sheker, a former professor and concert harpist who left the stage to follow her conviction that harp music could make death less painful and more profound.

The calling is only for some. Music-thanatologists “must be able to be with the grieving and the dying and in the experience of loss, pain and sufierring,” Sister Ripp said, “and to see that, to be able to share that, is a gift.”

Tonya Willis, whose mother died in March shortly after a Strings of Compassion vigil, said for her family, the music was invaluable. “None of us realized what a comfort and what a great gift it would be,” she said. “It just seemed to bring a calmness to everyone.”

About 30 certified music thanatologists work in hospitals, hospice programs and nursing homes in Oregon, California, Washington, New Mexico, Montana, Georgia and Maryland.

In June, music thanatologists trained in Missoula will be on staff at Providence Portland Medical Center and Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. Hospices in Bend, La Pine and Redmond also use music thanatologists. St Charles Medical Center in Bend and other hospices use volunteer harpists certified by different programs.

Judy Hodgson, administrator at Sacred Heart Medical Center, said she didn’t know what to expect four years ago when she first agreed to hear Sister Ripp play. But within minutes of hearing her music she said, “I knew we wanted to begin to offer those services.”

Hodgson said the vigils are one of many programs begun to create more ‘sounds of healing’ in the hospital. Community musicians often perform for patients, there’s a grand piano in the lobby and every time a baby is born, a chime resounds through the building.

The music played by Sigter Ripp and McCarthy turns dying from a frightening experience into something as natural as birth, Hodgson said. “They accompany people at their time of death, into the next phase of their being. It’s one of the greatest gifts we can give to our families and patients.”

Do you have news of inland Douglas and Lane Counties? You can reach Alice Tallmadge at
541-741-6256 or by e-mail at a.tallmadge AT worldnet DOT aatt DOT net

Created: April 21, 2001     Last updated: August 14, 2008

Harp is Medicine for the Soul

Local Harpists Provide Music that’s Medicine for the Soul

Seattle Times - May 22nd, 2000
By Christine Clarridge / Seattle Times staff reporter

The old woman had been a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a nurse and a widow over the course of her 76 years. Now she lay in a metal bed in a Lynnwood nursing home, as a cancer patient, and accepted the gift of harp music brought to her by two strangers.

At first, she fidgeted and moved to get up. A lifetime habit of offering lemonade to guests was hard to break. But as she submitted to the music, her arm fell across her chest, her hand rested against her neck, her eyes turned to the window where purple paper flowers were glued to the pane, where green leaves brushed the glass outside.
The music, beautiful and soothing, let her reflect on a full life - an Alabama childhood, a long and happy marriage, the death of her son, the birth and bloom of her daughter.

“Oh, it’s so sad sometimes. But that’s how life is. . . and I have had a good life.”

The use of music to comfort the sick and the dying is ancient and its benefits well documented. Physicians say the heart rate slows, breathing clears and rest comes when calming music is played to the ill. The Greeks knew it. The Celts knew it, and medieval monks knew it, using chants to bring what they called a blessed death. But the practice was nearly forgotten in modern times as societies became disconnected from the spiritual significance of death. Now, musical medicine is experiencing a renaissance. Though not yet mainstream, the practice of playing harps for the ailing has been revived, with numerous schools and training workshops opening around the country. Jeri Howe, 45, and Gary Plouff, 48, met in 1994 when they became part of the second graduating class of one such school in Montana. Over the past few years, they have together and separately played hundreds of vigils. They carry their harps down the darkened hallways of hospices, trauma centers and nursing homes to the bedsides of the dying, where they play and sing. They give comfort and reassurance. They gain enlightenment. “We’ve learned that life is holy,” said Howe. ” That life is fragile and precious and temporary. And we’ve learned that there is something more, something sacred and eternal, too”. “Our culture hides death away, and you can live your whole life without seeing someone die. But to see it, to witness it and to know that it doesn’t have to be scary, to know that there is transcendence, is an honor.”

Plouff remembers an elderly woman in a hospice in Montana. He and another harpist were with her in her room. He knelt down by her bed. He held her hand, stroked her cheek and sang. As she died, he felt her spirit pass out through the window, into a meadow of wild flowers and the world beyond. Plouff remembers playing in a room filled with people who were saying goodbye to a 17-year-old boy. As Plouff played, they embraced and prayed and cried together, and the love that they had for the boy, who was dying of leukemia, moved Plouff.

Howe remembers a woman about her own age who was dying of breast cancer. As Howe plucked her harp in the woman’s West Seattle home, the woman died. Her mother and sisters surrounded her. “It was beautiful and peaceful. The sun was setting on the one side, and the moon was rising on the other. She picked a perfect moment to die.”

Howe was a stay-at-home mother with a toddler and a newborn, a husband and a house in Shoreline when she bought her first harp to play lullabies to the baby. She was already an accomplished pianist and took to the harp naturally.“It’s so beautiful and fun to play and it feels so good when you wrap your arms around it,” she said.

In 1991, she was asked by her church, the United Methodist Church, to play at a retreat for people living with AIDS. “Their bodies were wasting away to nothing, and they could hardly walk. But they would come and lie down by the harp to receive the music. I could see the need and the thirst. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew that it was something.” Shortly after, she read about the school in Montana that calls itself The Chalice of Repose Project, and she knew, though it would take her several years to get there, that she had to attend.

Plouff was working as a caregiver for the terminally ill in Eugene when he, too, read about the Chalice Project. Originally from Massachusetts, where he’d played the church organ as a young man, he had moved to New York in the 1980s, during the emotional height of the AIDS epidemic, to study photography at New York University. He got his degree and, as a result of the crisis, also became deeply involved in caretaking and healing techniques. “I knew that I was called to help people in need, to work with the dying. . . . I ended up in Eugene, working as a caregiver but not really knowing why I was there,” he said. “Then I read an article about the Chalice Project, and it called to me deeply.” Unlike Howe, he had not played the harp before he arrived at the school. The moment he did, though, he said, “Where have you been all my life?”

Along with their classmates in the two-year program, Howe and Plouff studied epic literature, music, medicine, pharmacology, anatomy, social work and voice. They did research and wrote papers about ancient rituals surrounding death and dying. They practiced and played until callouses formed on the tips of their fingers. Howe commuted from Montana to Seattle to see her husband and her little girls during her tenure at the school, and she returned home upon graduation in 1996. Plouff, who had no lasting ties to Eugene, moved to Seattle that year as well, where he now lives on Capitol Hill. Requests for their services come from social workers, spouses, doctors, daughters and chaplains. The charge for an hour-long session is flexible, depending on the means of the dying and their loved ones. The two have never denied a request for service and often have gone unpaid. Though it’s not a lucrative calling - Plouff works a second job taking care of an elderly couple - its rewards are profound.

At Lynnwood Manor, Sara Hansen brushed tears from her eyes after Howe and Plouff played “Garten Mother’s Lullaby” and “Jesu dulcis” for her. She talked about her little boy, David Eugene Hansen, who died of cancer when he was 4. She talked about her husband, whom she met during World War II while he was in the service and with whom she moved to Marysville, then Everett, then Arizona. “We made a good marriage of it.” She talked about her parents. Her dad was tall, her mom was very short, and they raised four midsized daughters in a poor but peaceful home. She talked about her daughter, her grandchildren and her one great-granddaughter who lives over the mountains in Spokane. She gave Howe and Plouff a hug before they left. “I wish I had something to give you,” she whispered.

But she already had.

Created: August 06, 2000     Last updated: September 22, 2008

Exceptional Death Recalled

The Register-Guard - December 24th, 1998
By Karen McGowan

Before hearing Jim Corcoran’s story, I never would have considered calling someone an angel of death. Before hearing his story, such a description would have conjured images of turmoil and terror, never grace and peace.

It’s been three months now since I interviewed Corcoran about his late wife, mediator Kathleen O’Connell Corcoran. I went expecting to hear the story of a beautiful and remarkable life. Instead, as a cold rain poured down outside the couple’s warm dining room, I sat transfixed by the story of a beautiful and remarkable death.

Kathleen died just six months after they found cancer in her liver. She became critically ill alarmingly fast. A tumor grew so rapidly against her lower spine that the pressure broke her sacrum, a bone in the pelvis. “She was in blinding pain,” her husband recalled. “She went from being fairly functional to on her death bed in the space of a week.”

Photo Caption: Sr. Vivian Ripp, Music-thanatologist

She spent her last days in the impersonal sterility of a hospital intensive care unit. Yet it was there that the angel came, helping give her the most personal of deaths.The Roman Catholic nun was an unlikely presence at Kathleen’s deathbed. The Corcorans had long ago made peace with their decision to pursue spiritual growth apart from organized religion. The last thing either would want was some sort of last-ditch effort at conversion.

Still, something led Jim to welcome Sister Vivian Ripp into the last hours of Kathleen’s life. A decision he later credited with making those hours “timeless, transforming, astounding.”

“Music-thanatology” is what Sister Vivian and colleague Loraine McCarthy call their work. Though their Strings of Compassion program is offered through the pastoral care department at Sacred Heart Medical Center, there’s nothing medical about it. Their only pharmacology is a repertoire of ancient chants rendered on portable wooden harps. Both women trained with Therese Schroeder-Sheker of Montana, a pioneer in creating contemporary death vigils based on 11th century monastic records of chants used to comfort the dying.

“We offer a space, through beauty and compassion, to allow the dying person and the family to move with the resonance of the music, to do whatever it takes to grieve, experience their feelings, let go.” Sister Vivian explained, cradling the heavy harp against her chest as the broad pads of her fingers plied the multicolored strings. “The key is to be dynamic and intentional, responsive to whatever is happening. The anxiety of a patient struggling to breathe, for example, can be soothed by gentle, reassuring musical meter. Even though some of this music is 900 hundred years old, it still resonates today,” she said. “It provides an expression that is not verbal.” At the same time, the music often nudges family members to “sit on the bed, pour out their hearts, and verbally express themselves.” As they did with Kathleen.

“There were so many friends and family members gathered around her,” Sister Vivian recalled. “You could feel their warmth and deep respect for her. We all gathered around her bed and held hands. I asked each person to thank her for what she had brought to their lives.”

The silver-haired nun doubled over with laughter at the idea of her work as an attempt at conversion. “Our role is to be supportive of the way the people present look at meaning and the sacred,” she explained. “her needs are to be supported and reverenced. Besides, in many ways, death vigils are the most common of spiritual denominators. They force us to face that death is part of all our human experience, that somehow it has to be incorporated into our meaning of the word ‘life,’ “ Sister Vivian said. “Death can be among the most profound moments of life. Looking through the vulnerable eyes of death is like putting on glasses that allow us to see only what is essential. Sometimes it also allows, in the depths of sadness and loss, a sense of the sacred—a sense that, somehow, this too is all right.” Such was Kathleen Corcoran’s death.

“It was strikingly, overwhelmingly beautiful,” her husband said. “This woman was not into converting. She was like an angel there to serve us. I’m so happy this is a possibility for us in Eugene. There was so much tenderness and mercy and gentleness in that room, the anguish and grief were tempered. I was holding Kathleen, and the others were holding me, and we watched this beautiful woman go off to this other place.

There was this amazing feeling of being, I want to say, blessed.”

© Copyright 1998, The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, USA
Reprinted with permission.

Created: December 24, 1998     Last updated: July 28, 2009

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