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The Gift

Nineteen years ago and the day after Christmas,  the McDonald children 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.

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.

Mrs. McDonald had been diagnosed with cancer 8 months earlier. When I first met her she had been given less than 1 month to live and was placed in the Palliative Care Unit where I worked.  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 Mr. McDonald’s special request that I would facilitate music therapy sessions every day.  The entire family would meet precisely at 4:00. They knew they didn’t have much time with their mom.

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 want her to see us happy. We have decided that we need to just sing joyous 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.  They sang, laughed and cried for over an hour.

The only gifts the McDonald Family had in the room on that Christmas Eve were each other, their feelings of sadness, happiness and love for one another, not to mention the fond memories they had taken the time to nourish and cultivate over their lifetime together.

We, as people, ARE the gift and what we bring to each other are the trimmings.

I wish each of you great health and happiness….and LOTS of trimmings this holiday season.  Merry Christmas!


Jennifer Buchanan, BMT, MTA is the happy owner of JB Music Therapy and Author of TUNE IN: Use Music Intentionally to Curb Stress, Boost Morale and Restore Health. Our “Music Speaks” Blog aims to inspire you to use music with greater intention and knowledge and to hire us as required or purchase our products.