Exceptional Death Recalled
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.”