Journey Into Wholeness
“Why did you become a hospice music therapist?” This was often the first question my patients and families would ask me when I was working at hospice. Many of them had never heard of music therapy before. And those who had heard of it thought that it was something to be used with children with autism or people with brain injuries, so they were surprised to find a music therapist at hospice. Mainly people were just curious about how anyone would get into such an unusual occupation as hospice music therapy.
It all started with a book. In my second year of graduate school I had to read a self help book as a part of an assignment for a music therapy class. I didn’t even know what a self-help book meant, so I typed the word “self-help” on Amazon. Among the dozens of books that came up on search result, the first one on the list was called “Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.” The title seemed interesting, unusual, and provocative. After confirming with my professor that this was an acceptable book for the assignment, I ordered it. Little did I know that this single book would determine the course of my career.
It was around the same time I had to apply for a music therapy internship. In order to become a board certified music therapist I needed to complete a 6 month internship before taking a board certification exam. There were hundreds of internship sites all over the U.S. to choose from; medical hospitals, schools, private agencies, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, psychiatric hospitals, etc. But I had no idea where to apply, because I didn’t know what population I wanted to work with.
The book arrived in a few days. My intention was to read it as quickly as possibly so as to write a summary paper for the assignment. But it was impossible to read it fast, because I was both fascinated and frightened by the subject matter – death and dying. Even though I had never seen anyone die or even been to a funeral, mortality seemed to be an inevitable part of life that had always been just under the surface. And it was not going away, whether I avoided talking about it or used the words other than “death” to describe it. “Regardless my loved ones will die one day, and I will die, too.” I thought to myself.
And then suddenly a strange thought came to me: If I worked at hospice and faced my fear of death, I wouldn’t be scared of it any more. Before I knew it, I was preparing for the application materials to send to hospice in North Carolina. In the video message that was required as a part of the application I remember saying, “I have no idea how it’s like to work at hospice or what I can offer, but I’d like to learn.”
The 6 months I spent in the mountain of North Carolina was one of the most exhausting, shocking, and valuable times of my life. It taught me about working with the dying, the role of music therapy in hospice, grief counseling, terminal illnesses, and death. The work with the drying caused me to reevaluate everything from my spirituality, my career goals, my strengths and weaknesses, to my dysfunctional relationship with my boyfriend. The process of self-reflection was unpleasant and at times painful, but it was necessary to go through it in order to grow as a therapist. By the end of the internship I was certain this was the work I wanted to continue, because there was still so much more to learn from it.
That’s how my career as a hospice music therapist began 11 years ago. Since then, I’ve learned more about life and death from my patients and their families than any book I could have ever read.
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