The Sounds of Dying: MUSIC!
CEOLC Secretary & Co-Founder | End of Life Midwife | Certified by The Conscious Dying Institute, Denver Hospice
Terminal respiratory secretions, also colloquially known as “the death rattle,” are the noisy breath sounds that occur when someone who is close to death is unable to clear the saliva and mucous secretions that collect at the back of the throat. Once the swallowing reflex is gone, the death rattle becomes a common sign that death is imminent.
Those of us who work with the dying are familiar with this sound, but family members, most often, are not, and it can cause them great distress as it can sound as if their loved one will choke. The death rattle is one of the sounds we end-of-life doulas know well with the work we do. Other familiar sounds at end of life are that of conversation, sobbing, laughter…and music!
Every doula I know has playlists of music they hope may add beauty and perhaps calm to the dying scenario. This makes so much sense. Music has been shown to help those in physical discomfort by improving respiration, lowering blood pressure, relaxing muscle tension, and reducing stress.
All good things, to be sure, but what kind of music is truly most effective? Is it the stirring water-like sounds of orchestras playing stunning classics? Or is it the music of the client’s teen years—those happy times when boundaries were redefined, hormones were raging, and the road ahead seemed to be lined with endless possibilities? Music associated with religious services can hold powerful messages for a believer.
Me? I sing. On a good day that is a plus. One a bad day (allergies anyone?), I croak, but I do it with passion. I do my best to share not just the notes or the lyrics, but to infuse my effort with loving energy. This is a gift I offer the dying…something I humbly lay at their feet. My songs of choice are lullabies. Many are the songs that mothers have sung throughout centuries as they lulled their loved one to sleep. I find the idea of singing lullabies at the time of death a beautiful way to symbolically close the circle of life. And I hope that the dying may experience the same sense of safety, nurturing, and calm they may have experienced as infants.
I offer you some of my favorite old lullabies and links to familiarize you with the melodies.
This recording of Long Long Ago is sung by my sister Robin Burkin Arquette. She and my mother Lois Duncan produced a stunning album, Songs From Yesterday, to welcome my second daughter into the world. The first album they created (to welcome daughter #1) is called Songs From Dreamland, a recording of original lullabies written by Mother and sung by Robin.
Music is as universal as life and death. It touches our hearts and souls and is a terrific offering to keep in our end-of-life doula toolbox. Perhaps sometime in the future we might create song lists that can be utilized by other doulas across the state as they attend the dying.