Saying Goodbye Through Music


What feelings, thoughts, images, or experiences come to mind when you see that word? Depending on the context, “goodbye” can take on a lot of different meanings.

“Goodbye” can signal a temporary parting, or it can represent something more permanent. And when it represents a more permanent situation, saying goodbye can carry bittersweet feelings.

I often encounter this as a music therapist working in hospice when I attend the death of one of my patients. Many times the person who has died has been ill for a long time and their family members may feel a sense of relief that their loved one is no longer suffering.

Yet at the same time, there is a sadness because their loved one is no longer there as a physical presence- memories now take the place of a person who was once there. Or in the case where family conflicts existed, family members may be grieving the loss of what never existed.

And to look at it from the perspective of the person with a terminal illness, many things occur within themselves that involve saying goodbye. As a person becomes more ill or debilitated, they may grieve as they lose their independence, vitality, strength, mobility, cognitive ability, and speech.

As you can see, there are many “goodbyes” to be made in end-of-life care. Some things that I do as a music therapist to acknowledge these are:

  • Song choice– Giving people the chance to choose songs with lyrics that match their feelings in the present moment or that express things that they would like to say to their loved one.
  • Improvising music– Encouraging those involved to make their own music as a way to musically express their feelings. Verbally processing may or may not be used as a follow-up to this music-making, as sometimes the music helps people to find the words they need to clearly describe their experience, while other times the music captures all that needs to be said, leaving words unnecessary.
  • Song-writing– What better way to help loved ones say goodbye than through a song they’ve composed themselves? Writing a song that captures those things that need to be said between family members is an empowering experience that can result in leaving the bereaved with an unique, tangible memory to hold onto after their loved one has died.

In my own personal life, I have also used these same musical interventions when I’ve found myself in the midst of life transitions. Engaging with music in these ways has been helpful for me in being able to acknowledge, express, and move through the myriad of emotions that can come up when having to say goodbye to something that I had otherwise been expecting.

How do you acknowledge goodbyes in your own life? What are some other creative approaches you could use to process through the grief that can come up when saying goodbye? As always, please feel free to leave your comments below. If you have questions about the hospice and palliative care music therapy services I provide, you can learn more here.

4 comments on “Saying Goodbye Through Music

  1. How well you describe hospice music therapy with great feeling and compassion. I count it a humble honor to share the end-of-life care of our clients with music therapy. We can help others review their lives, remembering the significance of a particular song or composer and often help the family with the emotional “good-byes.” Thank you for expressing the music therapists’ perspective on end-of-life care so eloquently.

    • Thank you so much, Vicki! It truly is an honor to do the work that we do; I absolutely love it. How long have you been working as a hospice music therapist?

  2. Faith, I agree with Vicki. You speak very kindly and lovingly of your experiences. We are truly gifted by our profession in that we are able to do take part in a work that moves us as much as (we hope) our clients.

    It happens that my Dad passed away recently of cancer. He was in hospice (which was amazing). He didn’t have a music therapist- well, he kind of did: me. I was able to be with him for the last two weeks of his life, and I brought my guitar across the country with me and hung out with him and tried to help him through his agitation. When he was no longer able to speak, my mom and my brother and I hung out with him and played and sang songs we’ve all loved, and I found him some Persian poetry (I’m half-Iranian) to listen to as well (which is actually quite musical in its way.

    It happened he waited until we were out of the room (but within eyesight) to die, but we were listening to music on TV together. So I guess there was a lot of music in my Dad’s last weeks and a lot of healing and love. Sad but a good way to die, and I hope he thought so too. So glad my family is as obsessed with music as I am! :- )

    No songs have come out of this for me as yet (writing-wise, I mean), but maybe someday.

    • Thank you, Roia. I truly do love being able to use music in this way. My condolences, as well, on the recent death of your father. I can only imagine what it was like for you to share music with him in that way. So sacred, tender, and deep.

Comments are closed.