Providence Health and Services photo
Laura Moya plays for a patient at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center.  Music is part of therapy and comfort care at Providence.
Providence Health and Services photo
Laura Moya plays for a patient at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center. Music is part of therapy and comfort care at Providence.
Richard Redmond had never been much for what he considered touchy-feely, including soft music. But on his deathbed in February at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, the 92-year-old retired Navy man allowed music to create a relaxing, sacred moment for him and his family.

The musician was Laura Moya, one of two harpists who are part of treatment teams for Providence, Oregon's largest health provider. For Providence, the music is not just something nice; it's a structure to help coping with illness and the end of life. It’s not performance, but spiritual and palliative care.

"The calming effect went beyond just listening to music at home," says Tom Redmond, Richard's son. "It totally relaxed me, too." Tom says his father reluctantly allowed Moya to play the first time, but then was keen to have her return, which she did until his last hours.

Moya and Andrea Partenheimer, her cohort at Providence Portland Medical Center, are called music thanatologists, thanatology being the study and treatment of those who are dying, plus their families.

The Providence music thanatology program is now a decade old. Harpists go through rigorous training to observe vital signs — pulse and breathing — and then tailor their music accordingly.

"We look at breathing patterns and often pace the music along with the breathing," Partenheimer says. "A person might have labored breathing and the music can help steady it, or it's at least an archetypal way of being with the person and connecting at a deep level."

Moya says music can enhance the family dynamic. If she notices loved ones isolated — sending text messages, staring out the window — she'll play something "highly relational," with harmonies and major tonalities. That kind of music encourages gathering.

If a loved one seems too lost in emotion, the harpists ease off on the harmonies and emphasize rhythm or melody, which helps people embrace their thinking capacity.
Music thanatology is nothing new.   

The ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese and many other cultures incorporated music into their healing practices and to ease the transition at the end of life.

Father Bruce Cwiekowski, director of pastoral care at Providence Portland Medical Center, says the tradition was alive at Christian monasteries centuries ago. Monks and nuns would come sing around a dying peer tenderly until death came.

"Music thanatology reminds us that this is as sacred a moment as birthing, despite the sorrow," says Father Cwiekowski.

Father Freddy Ocun, head of pastoral care at Providence St. Vincent, says music is another way to treat the whole person — body, mind and spirit. A native of Uganda, Father Ocun explains that in his culture music accompanies a person through all the stages of life.   

"When a baby is born, the village people always sing a welcome song attuned to what the village people think this child will become," he says. "The same song is sung when the person lies on his or her death bed."

Moya and Partenheimer also play for patients with chronic illnesses to ease pain, and  comfort newborns and their parents in neonatal intensive care. Nurses and other staff also request a healing music session now and then.

There are more patients who could benefit than Moya and Partenheimer can see. Providence Willamette Falls Medical Center is now searching for its own music thanatologist.

The modern music thanatology movement began at Providence St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, Mont., where Moya and Partenheimer studied.  

Moya explains the monastic tradition of singing at death as a way to put the dying person in touch with beauty, considered one way to experience the divine.

"That's what we try to do," she says, "by bringing beauty into everyone's room."