In Praise of Words and Music for Patients

“I’m still praying the Lord’s Prayer with him,” one of our hospice chaplains said about her patient.

This person’s illness had made it difficult to communicate anymore. Most of his decisions were now made by his loved ones. Often it comes to this, where our beloved spouse or parent and grandparent can no longer effectively communicate. Sometimes it is because of cancer, and a “sudden” turn for the worse means a patient easily conversing in the morning transitions to someone incapable of talking by the evening. Or the patient slowly walks the darkening, years-long road of dementia, eventually unable to speak or comprehend words.

But with many of these folks, certain words, songs and memorabilia will trigger a positive, life-affirming response. As the chaplain reported the situation, when this patient was asked if he wanted to pray, he gave an affirmative nod and then, as the chaplain began, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” the patient joined in.

Did he fully understand the prayer? Probably not.

Could he only say the Lord’s Prayer because he’d said it, over and over, in worship services since childhood? Possibly so.

All faith traditions have rituals that may become routine. Muslims pray five times a day. Does a believer’s repetition of prayer ever impact reverence? Many Christian churches offer communion, the mysteries of the bread and cup, on a daily to monthly basis. But can a holy meal evolve into a ho-hum meal when it is familiar and expected? Shrines with Buddha are placed in the corner of a room or a mezuzah is attached to the doorpost . . . within days, that spiritual icon may seem invisible, merely part of the décor. Bank accounts are set to automatically contribute to favorite causes or a church’s “tithes and offerings” and givers quickly forget why they started helping. If believers are not attentive, sacred ceremonies and commitments are little different than the habits of mowing a lawn or unloading the dishwasher.

Years ago, I worked with a hospice chaplain who sang to patients. I was jealous since I can’t sing a lick, let alone hold a note! He’d visit bedbound patients, their faces blank, their caregivers frustrated. But then the chaplain would sing a well-known hymn like “Amazing Grace” or “For the Beauty of the Earth.” A subtle or sudden transformation would often occur. Eyes would light up, both family and patient. And maybe, with a few words of the refrain or every darn word in the song, the patient sang on key with the chaplain. (And don’t ignore the appeal of a “Jingle Bells” in the summer or “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during football season!)

And so, the chaplain I work with now described how this man would join in the Lord’s Prayer. “Please pray with me,” the chaplain invited. The patient did pray those fondly remembered and still familiar words, those sentences that were directly linked to his childhood.

This doesn’t happen all of the time. Silence may still continue. The blank face remains blank. Nothing, whether the medication given for pain, or the words shared for comfort, is guaranteed.

But isn’t sharing the well-known worth a try?

What if you don’t think you can sing, or you’re reluctant to say a prayer because you somehow won’t say them in the “right” way or those prayerful words are “only” what a pastor/priest/imam should say? Please, sing them or say them! How something is sung, or who says the words, doesn’t matter as much as the simple effort of sharing.

And you can always try recorded music. One of my sisters, at a fund-raiser for a hospice in her area, told me about viewing the 2014 documentary “Alive Inside.” It shows the power of sharing music with Alzheimer patients. I include its trailer . . .

What if your loved one and you don’t know any songs or prayers? Still, aren’t there words worth repeating, because they are at the heart of the heart of who we are as humans? Maybe all you have to do, which is the best of all, is to hold the hand of a loved one and say, and keep saying, and keep believing . . . I love you, I love you, I love.

I think of when my mother was dying in her final days. I read to her. I told her stories. I prayed. Early on, I’m confident she heard some of what I said, what I repeated. Near the end, with immense amounts of drugs holding her pain at bay, could she hear? I don’t know. But I could hear.

And when all I could say, all I could repeat, was I love you, it wasn’t her hearing that mattered, but that I kept speaking the truth with her every breath.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

Photo at top from Michael Rossato-Bennett’s documentary Alive Inside.

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