Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2010

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Songs for the Dying

Songs for the Dying
Jennifer Hollis ´95 plays her harp for Katherine Sonnenberg, a patient at the Lahey Clinic Medical Center in Burlington, Mass. Photos by Jon Crispin.

Jennifer Hollis ´95 brings comfort to the terminally ill with her harp

By Rachel Harrington


As families struggle to say goodbye to loved ones at the Lahey Clinic Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., Jennifer Hollis ´95 is in the background, working to ease their pain.

Hollis, the only music-thanatologist in the Boston area, is one of a small but growing group of professionals who are uniting music and medicine in end-of-life care. She is specially trained to play the harp and use her voice to help those who are dying.

While Hollis says it can be challenging to watch patients and their families grieve, she is committed to her work, which combines her two passions — music and service.

The goal of music-thanatology is to relieve suffering, which can happen on a number of levels. The patient may experience a decrease in pain, restlessness or agitation. For some patients and families, Hollis says, the music may provide emotional or spiritual support that helps them to reflect on the end of life.

“Music-thanatology gave me the opportunity to be a musician in a new way — helping relieve suffering while exploring questions of meaning and spirituality,” says Hollis, who works as an assistant director of admissions at Harvard Divinity School by day and plays for the dying at night.

Music-thanatologists point to studies showing that music can actually help patients sleep and relieve pain and breathing difficulties.

Erin Casey, a nurse on Lahey´s medical ICU, told the Boston Globe that Hollis´s music “relaxes everybody. The call buttons don´t go off. I think it really takes (patients) out of Lahey for a little while.”

Hollis was interested in music long before she discovered music-thanatology. As a student she studied piano, flute and cello and built her first harp from a kit in 1996.

A child development major at Connecticut College, she took piano lessons from Gary Chapman and sang with the Williams Street Mix. She earned her Master of Divinity from Harvard Divinity School.

Hollis first learned about music-thanatology as an undergraduate, when she happened to read a Connecticut College Magazine article about the topic. The author, Frederick Paxton, the Brigida Pacchiani Ardenghi Professor of History, had just become a visiting professor at the School of Music-Thanatology at the Chalice of Repose Project in Missoula, Mont.

“I was surprised when I found out Jen was interested in the topic,” Paxton says, “but I was also delighted that a student at the College would think, ´Wow, this is something for me.´”

While its origins can be traced back to monastic deathbed rituals, music-thanatology is relatively new, initially developed in the early 1970s. The profession is the creation of Therese Schroeder-Sheker, the founder of the Chalice of Repose Project and dean of the school.

Students have come from as far away as Australia to attend the School of Music-Thanatology, now located in Mt. Angel, Ore., to study the practice of using live music at the bedside of dying patients. Today there is also a music-thanatology training program at Lane Community College in Portland, Ore.

“Music-thanatology is something that immediately touches certain people, and they wind up devoting their lives to it,” Paxton says.

Hollis wanted to learn more, too, and from 1996-1998, she studied the topic at the School of Music-Thanatology at the Chalice of Repose Project, where she reconnected with Paxton, who had also taught her in New London.

More than a decade later, Hollis wrote a book on the topic, "Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain and Preparing the Passage" (Praeger Press, 2010), and she is the president of the Music-Thanatology Association International.

“Music-thanatology teaches me a lot about the fragility of life and the beauty of our connections to other people,” she says. “It can be difficult, but I also have the privilege to witness people express incredible love and tenderness for one another. This is what sustains me.”


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