From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Music eases transition for the dying

by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the June 13, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

The Chalice of Repose is a music-thanatology program in Missoula, Mont., that brings prescriptive music to the dying. The Providence Center for Faith and Healing in Spokane is working to bring the program to Sacred Heart Medical Center as another palliative care treatment for those with terminal illnesses or injuries.

The Chalice of Repose is based on an ancient Benedictine monastic practice that helps those dying “enter peacefully into their final passage.” A team of two music-thanatologists will come to the bedside of the dying person. They will take turns playing the harp or singing. Harps are used because of their warm tone and their polyphonic nature.

The musicians do not play standard music, but music based on plainchant that has been especially developed for the dying process. Silence is an important element of their work.

The musicians have been specially trained to be aware of the physical process of dying and tailor the music and the silences accordingly. Each death is unique and so is the music. The musicians can be called to the dying person’s bedside more than once and will generally play for about an hour each visit. The musicians have played for people of all ages with all kinds of diseases.

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Some helpful definitions:

  • Thanatology is a description of the dying process and the psychological means for coping with it.
  • To palliate means to lessen or abate. In the Chalice project, it means to lessen the pain and trauma of dying.
  • The Chalice refers to the body of the dying person. The music “enters” the physical body of the person, “filling” it with restfulness or repose.

    *****

    Susan Keyes, a registered nurse who is director of the Providence Center, admits she was skeptical of the project when she first heard about it. A trip to St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, where the program is taught, to witness its use firsthand convinced her of its efficacy.

    As the musicians played, said Keyes, “I could hear the person’s breathing become less labored.” When a nurse came to administer care and the musicians stopped, the patient’s breathing once again became difficult.

    Documentation since the program began shows that the music has a beneficial physical effect on the dying person, lessening their pain. It also helps their families, she said.

    Benedictine monks in the ninth century established the music to accompany those near death as part of their ministry of care to the sick and elderly. The monks believed that dying is a part of the life process and should be treated with as much loving care as being born. They wanted to assist those who were dying to experience “a peaceful transition” and “a good death.”

    The practice fell into disuse over time, as monasteries closed during the days of revolution in Europe and during the Reformation.

    In 1990 Teresa Schroeder-Sheker entered the picture. The Montana woman worked with the dying elderly and was distressed at the end of life care they received. A visit with a priest encouraged her to turn the usual end- of-life practices into an opportunity to try something different. She began sitting with the dying, holding them and singing to them.

    Schroeder-Sheker, an accomplished musician and singer, began researching the practice to find a body of literature on music for the dying. Her work led to development of the two-year Music-Thanatology program at St. Patrick Hospital. The program trains people for this special ministry. Schroeder-Sheker is dean of the program.

    Keyes hopes to have the program started at Sacred Heart by October or by the first of next year. She said it would be used there first, but eventually it would be expanded to St. Joseph Care Center and Holy Family Medical Center. A long-term goal is for the Chalice of Repose to be available to the community.

    The Chalice of Repose would be an addition to an already-expanding music program provided by Providence Center. Carolers come to the hospital to sing at other times besides Christmas in a program called “Continuing the Song.” Musicians play in the hospital lobby and in the various waiting rooms in a program called “Songs for the Soul.”

    Musicians also play in Providence Center’s garden on Fridays, and sometimes patients play for other patients. A man waiting for a heart transplant played the flute at the hospital during his stay.

    Keyes is writing grants to fund the Chalice of Repose and has already received some donations toward its cost. Private donations would also be welcome, she said.

    People wanting to make donations to the Chalice of Repose or to the other music programs can send them to Providence Center for Faith and Healing, 101 W. Eighth St., Spokane, WA 99204.

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