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.
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.
Photo: 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
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