Music-Thanatology Vigils

Music-Thanatology Vigils usually last for about 45 minutes to an hour. Music-Thanatology vigils are provided using voice and harp for those at the end of life in many different kind of settings. In the United States they are often used as part of pastoral care and they have been prescribed by doctors or nursing staff. Some of the ways in which live harp and vocal music can help are to:

  • Reduce the recipients experience of pain
  • Aid relaxation, inducing and/or deepening sleep
  • Support breathing and lower or elongate respirations
  • Provide a lyrical transition for patients who are extubated
  • Enable families to process their grief

The Music-Thanatologist is usually approached to help when someone is nearing the end of life. They are trained in a synthesis of medicine, psychology and music as well as drawing on many other disciplines. They work with the patient and their family meeting their needs on the day of the vigil. It is helpful to know something of the patient’s medical history but mainly the music will be prescribed on the basis of what is happening now. For example, the Music-Thanatologist may play or sing to the patient’s breathing and then elongate a musical phrases to encourage longer out breaths. This can be deeply relaxing. If there is a lot of difficult emotions in the room, music might be played that matches and expresses this. It may be that the patient is in emotional or physical distress and music might be played which is soothing, gentle and calming.

The presence of the Music-Thanatologist is important in providing warmth and calm support to the patient and family in whatever way is appropriate to them at the time. The Music-Thanatologist will check what is needed with the patient if they are conscious and awake and with the family and any medical staff present who are involved in the patient’s care.

The number of vigils required will vary from person to person. Sometimes one is all that is needed in creating a deeper sense of peace. It can be most helpful to ask for a vigil when death seems to be imminent as this is where the music can work most deeply and profoundly.

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