Transition is perhaps among of the most difficult times we human beings face. We shift from one situation to another, sometimes becoming overwhelmed by the challenges these transitions bring to ourselves and to those we love. Patients in hospice care and their families can find these changes troublesome, often having difficulty letting go of this world, or letting go of their loved ones as they pass from this life to what lies beyond.

Because music is so intricately linked with emotion (due to the way music is processed in the brain), it is a ideal catalyst for communication during times of transition. Music reminds us of who we are, what we care about, where we’ve been and what we believe. Music also carries strong emotional connection and often serves as a container for our emotional expression. As a board-certified music therapist, I often experience this phenomenon with my clients, particularly those on hospice care.

Here is an example what I mean:

With my guitar slung across my back, I was walking down the hall of a Portland area assisted living facility when a staff member stopped me. At that time, I was working with two practicum students from Marylhurst University to provide music therapy services for the facility’s memory care unit. The staff member asked if I would play my guitar and sing something for an elderly woman named Elizabeth who was actively dying. I agreed immediately and headed toward her room.

As I approached Elizabeth’s room, I was greeted by her son and daughter-in-law who had been holding her hand and stroking her hair. Elizabeth’s breathing was shallow; her eyes were closed and she looked frail but peaceful.

I asked the son and daughter-in-law what songs Elizabeth liked, but they replied they were not sure. Trusting my intuition, I began singing a song called “Softly and Tenderly.” The lyrics of this sweet, gentle song go something like this:

            “Softly and tenderly

            Jesus is calling

            Calling for you and for me.

             See, at your doorway

            He is waiting and watching,

            Watching for you and for me.

            Come home, come home

            You who are weary, come home.

            Earnestly, tenderly,

            Jesus is calling

            Calling, ‘Elizabeth, come home.’”


I sang the song and strummed my guitar softly, then hummed the tune, holding a musical space for Elizabeth and her family members. Elizabeth did not stir, so I did not immediately know if the music had an impact on her or not. I turned to leave the room quietly as not to disturb the family’s grieving process, but Elizabeth’s son followed me into the hallway.

“How did you know to sing that song?” he asked. I replied that I had no idea but that it popped into my head when I entered the room. I hoped I had not chosen something they didn’t care for!

He continued, “Mom has been on hospice care for some time and we just haven’t been able to find the words to let her know it is ok to go. I wanted you to know that song perfectly said to her exactly what we had been wanting to say. We can’t thank you enough for helping us communicate with Mom that she has had a good life and it’s ok to go.”


Elizabeth passed away peacefully that night.