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A True Gift – Music in Palliative Care

Sixteen years ago, on Christmas Eve,  the McDonald family lost their mother to cancer.  I know this because the family invited me, as a music therapist, to spend the last few, difficult days with them. The following sequence of events are some I have never forgotten. This family was a true inspiration to me , unknowingly helping me get past some of my own struggles with the Christmas season.

The McDonalds were a close family comprised of Mr. and Mrs. McDonald and their three young adult children ranging in ages from 17 – 25.  Mr. McDonald would often reminisce about the fond memories they had being together including family travel and great family traditions during the holiday season.

I first met Mrs. McDonald on a Palliative Care Unit.  She had been diagnosed with cancer 8 months earlier. When I first met her she had been given less than 1 month to live.  Her family would visit daily and laughter would fill her room – an unusual sound on this unit.

A week before Christmas I was assigned as the music therapist to Mrs. McDonald and it was by her special request that I would hold family sessions every day.  The entire family would meet precisely at 4:00.

It was the day before Christmas when I would sing for the family for the last time.  The oldest daughter pulled me aside and said “Jennifer, we love it when you come but it is getting so close to mom’s death and we do not want to cry anymore.  We have decided that we need to just sing happy Christmas carols and celebrate the great times we have had together.”   When I asked the group what they felt would be the most positive musical memory for them,  they all replied “Jingle Bells.”

I took out my guitar, strummed the first few chords and launched into the words “Jingle Bells……I didn’t even repeat those words when the whole family erupted into more sounds of grief than I had ever witnessed in previous sessions. I stopped playing and looked at this family, hugging and crying….and then hugging and smiling….and then hugging and laughing.

The oldest daughter looked at me and said “I guess it doesn’t matter what kind of songs we sing….please just keep going.’  And we did.