Music at the End of Life

April 22, 2016
Jennifer Hollis
Music-thanatologist and HDS alumna Jennifer Hollis / Photo: Jon Crispin

Jennifer Hollis, MDiv '03, never intended to earn herself the peculiar title "Midwife of Death."

After reading an article about music-thanatology before her senior year at Connecticut College, however, the prospect of learning how to prescriptively play music for the dying had taken up residence in Hollis's imagination. She took a leap of faith, applying to a music-thanatology program in Missoula, Montana—at the time, the only program of its kind in the United States.

"You know, like every 21 year old, I was immediately captured by the idea of playing music for dying people," Hollis said with a laugh.

Press coverage of Hollis’s enthusiasm for this unique line of work has described her as everything from “angel” to the less euphemistic "Midwife of Death."

"It's not the way I describe myself, but the article was wonderful, very touching," Hollis said.

Hollis's post-college plans to move to Montana, buy a make-your-own harp kit, and begin a rigorous two-year study including anthropology, music theory, and anatomy and physiology seemed at the time to be a youthful adventure on the path toward some other career that, according to her, actually existed.

"At that time, there were very few jobs in music-thanatology. It's not like I was going to graduate and have lots of options for a job to do," Hollis said. And yet, since finishing her training, Hollis has been tapped for one music-thanatology job after another, pushing her into the spotlight as one of the best-known music-thanatologists in the nation. For the past 20 years, Hollis's career in music-thanatology has helped spark national conversations about end-of-life care.

Now working as both a freelance writer and a music-thanatologist at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Greater Boston, Hollis is an advocate for the resources of hospice care and the healing potential of music. In recent articles for publications including The New York Times, Hollis has reflected on her unique and unexpected vocation in the field of playing music at people's deathbeds. While many shy away from discussing death, Hollis feels her experience watching others die has taught her lessons about the end of life that can help alleviate others' fears.

"I've been exposed to beautiful deaths, where patients are surrounded by people they love, where people are telling each other that they love them," Hollis said. "I've been exposed the excellent care that people can receive at the end of life, and the ways in which family members can rise to the occasion to say beautiful things to their loved ones. I feel over-informed about how good a death can be."

Hollis's understanding of death and dying was not always quite so simple. After Hollis finished her music-thanatology training, she struggled to place the work in the context of her own evolving spirituality.

"I wanted a life of service, I wanted to do something good in the world—I would never have used the word ministry, but of course that is the word I was looking for," she said.

When she met two HDS students by chance at a friend's wedding, she sent away for the admissions catalog—it was the '90s— and realized that the MDiv program sounded like the right next step in her training.

"I built a lot of my curriculum here around questions of healing: What does it mean to be with people who are suffering? What does it mean to be healed? Can you be healed if you're not cured?"

From a class called "Religion and Medicine" that brought together students from HDS and Harvard Medical School to a venture at the Center for the Study of World Religions called the Religion, Health, and Healing Initiative, Hollis's time at HDS helped her to see her music-thanatology training within the context of her ministerial vocation. For her, the study of death and healing was as much practical as it was theoretical.

"What do we do in the face of suffering? What's meaningful? What do people need?" Hollis asked. "I've noticed that music is an incredibly powerful tool in these situations. I feel very lucky to do this work because music can be so useful."

Jennifer Hollis playing the harp
Jennifer Hollis playing the harp at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center in Greater Boston. / Photo: Kathleen Dooher

Hollis's wisdom about death, family, and expectations has been hard-won. Over the past few decades, her work both inside and outside the music-thanatology field has reinforced the adage "less is more."

While working at a group home for emotionally disturbed teenagers in Montana, Hollis learned that her idealistic expectations were ultimately not her most helpful contribution.

"My supervisor wanted to teach me to see the young people's needs more clearly, to help me predict what they were going to do. So we made these tiny little bets, like for a car wash or for a bag of M&Ms. I always bet that the young people would do ridiculous, idealistic things. My supervisor would say, 'Okay, you’re going to lose that car wash.' I started to notice that the young people we were working with had their own vision for their lives," Hollis said. "They want you to listen to their lives, and be with them where they are."

Learning to listen more closely to others' needs and desires has impacted Hollis's work across fields.

"Twenty years later, the big, broad strokes of whatever I was going to do to save the world seem much less interesting than the smaller gestures of life—like just sticking around when people are suffering, being present, saying less rather than saying more," Hollis said.

As Hollis builds her writing career following the publication of her book, Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain and Preparing the Passage, she has found that listening to others' lives is a bigger part of telling her story than she could have imagined. Although with every publication comes the decision of whether or not to read the comments section, Hollis has found that many people respond by recounting their own experiences with the dying.

As for her own death, Hollis is no longer afraid.

"That's both the blessing and the hard thing about being around death all the time: I'm really sure that I'm going to die, and that the people around me will also die," Hollis said. “This is not an idea that flutters past every six months. It's with me a lot of the time."

Now that she is working on a memoir, Hollis hopes that sharing her unique exposure to death and dying will bring some insight and levity to a usually taboo topic. Having entered into the music-thanatology field as a recent college graduate, death has been a strange companion to the more commonplace hazards Hollis experienced as a 20-something woman. Of course, some of those experiences might make their way into the book, too.

"It's also about Internet dating," Hollis said.

by Caroline Matas