The Great Gig In the Sky

October 24, 2011

As someone who works with elderly clients, I experience a lot of loss on a pretty regular basis.  I go into each session hoping all of my clients will still be there, but knowing that may not always be the case.

I’ve made my peace with death.  I really have.

La Jolla - The best place in the world to work ridiculously hard.

When I was in my internship, I was working at Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego in the ICU as part of my job.  It was intense, but there were so many people I worked with who were so touched in so many ways by music therapy that it made it all worth it.  There was one experience in particular that sticks with me to this day…

What ended up happening, was this: A 20 year-old had an accident in the ocean on either a surfboard or a jetski (details are foggy) and was in a coma.  After his family conversed with his doctors, they found out that if he were to come out of the coma, he would not be able to live even a small fraction of the life he once experienced and loved.  His family decided that the best thing for him would be for them to take him off of life support and rush him to the Operating Room so his young, healthy organs could be given to someone in need.  I came into this picture five minutes before he was extubated.  I was working in the ICU that afternoon, and his mother approached me, and told me that her son loved the Beatles and asked if I’d play a couple of songs while his family and close friends said goodbye before he was taken to the OR.  I played a slow (Joe Cocker-esque) version of “With a Little Help From My Friends,” and the old MT standard, “Let it Be,” while this was all taking place, and I felt like I was looking at myself and the situation from somewhere outside of my body.  It was so unreal.  I don’t know if I was sad, but I do know that I needed to take the rest of the afternoon off.  And I did.  And then I was fine.

I reflected on what had happened, and decided that it was my job to provide a service for people in the ICU, and that the real loss wasn’t for me, it was for that kid’s family and friends.  I sucked it up, and went back to the ICU the next day.  I have lost many clients over the years since then and have been present during some clients’ passings, and I’m always fine and usually honored to be there at such a significant time in someone’s life.  Maybe it’s because I haven’t had any traumatic losses in my life, or maybe it’s because I compartmentalize well, or maybe I have a disorder where the only losses that affect me emotionally are romantic relationships and when animals die in movies.  I don’t know.  OR…maybe I can let go of my personal issues for the sake of my clients.  Yeah – I like that one the best :/

Loss is hard, and for a lot of people, but…it doesn’t seem like it’s very hard for me.  When a client passes away, I process quite a bit with the people that client was close with, and I process with my students if they knew the person, but I don’t really feel like I need to process with myself that much – until my blogging began that is.

In the spring, a man in one of my groups stopped breathing literally minutes before my music therapy group was supposed to begin.  I asked my student to remove the two residents already in the group room, and I notified the nurses that something was going on.  We waited down the hall for twenty minutes while EMTs tried to revive him, and finally, we learned that he had passed away.  My student needed to process quite a bit, and never quite got over the whole thing.  I can’t say I blame him, but I was fine. I feel that when people are elderly and in poor health, passing away is not only inevitable, but often a blessing, so when I learn of someone’s death, I’m more relieved than anything else.  I’m happy I was able to contribute something to the end of their life, and increase the quality of it to some extent.  Most of my clients are so unhappy in their old age (outside of music groups) that they talk about being “ready,” and who am I to deny them of those feelings?  Who am I to decide that it’s sad?

Jazz funeral in New Orleans

In recent years, I have subscribed to the New Orleans Jazz Funeral perspective on death.  This is “THE” number, as in – “Oh lord, I want to be in that number, when the saints go marching in.”  This is why people march in procession to jazz music instead of sitting sadly in a church basement eating cheese and crackers.  This is why they call it “The Great Beyond,” and why in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” the narrator wants to be carried “home.”

In the spring, five of my clients – regular group members – passed away.  I learned recently that seven residents I used to work with at the dementia-specific AL passed away between April and July, and one last week (A. from Young At Heart) and in the past week, three clients at one of my SNFs died, one of whom I did individual sessions with, and two of whom were regular group attendees.  I also learned today that G., of the last statement in this post, is in the hospital.

I am sad that it may not be too long from now that G. won’t come back to my group, but I’m happy for her, if she’s finally able to be taken from her suffering.  In my work, I find it harder than anything else to watch as my clients become frustrated when their bodies aren’t responding to the end of life the same way their minds are, and are treated medically (!!!) for symptoms and conditions that are actually just a part of the body’s decline, and would allow them to be released with some semblance of dignity remaining.  This is where hospice comes in, which I believe is one of the most valuable systems our society has in caring for aging or terminally ill people.  It’s just not used enough.

This post was a forum for me to express my own thoughts on death and dying, as I learned of two deaths today, and I hope that even if you disagree with what I say, you can understand the place I’m coming from.

“And I am not frightened of dying, any time will do, I don’t mind.  Why should I be frightened of dying?  There’s no reason for it, you’ve gotta go sometime.” –Pink Floyd

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2 Responses to “The Great Gig In the Sky”

  1. Anonymous said

    Wendy –

    Wonderful…

    Vince

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