Rebecca Hazlitt looked across a smoky bar one evening and realized she wanted to do more with her life.
She was there with her band, the latest job in a life spent pursuing music — folk singer, rock musician, guitarist, keyboard and ukulele player.
“I looked up at the universe and thought to myself how tired I was of this. I wanted to use my music but I didn’t want to do this anymore.”
Then a man with a story got her headed in the right direction.
“A friend came into the bar where our band was playing and told us that while his grandmother was at the end of her life, a musician was in the hospital playing the harp at her bedside,” Hazlitt recalls.
That’s all it took. Hazlitt, 63, had discovered what she says is her “true calling.”
Today, she’s a music-thanatologist — a specialty musician certified to provide therapeutic music to people during their last hours of life.
Music-thanatology is based on the ancient traditions of providing music to comfort not only the dying, but also the loved ones during an emotional time as someone is passing.
Using harp and voice at the bedside, Hazlitt has been conducting music vigils for patients for more than 15 years, after completing studies at the Chalice of Repose Project in Missoula, Mont., where she studied from 1994 to 1996.
“Thanatology” comes from the Greek word for death, “thanatos.”
“We learned that bedside music was historically a monastic tradition, with ancient roots in France where centuries ago people would gather around the bedside of the dying person and sang,” she says. “We also studied anatomy and physiology and disease systems, as well as medications so we had a very solid background in the whole physical phenomena of dying.”
Because Hazlitt was unfamiliar with the harp, and because of the expense of buying one new, she made her first instrument from a kit.
“The kit was $1,500 and that was a lot less than I would have paid if I went out and bought one that could cost many thousands of dollars,” she says.
Following graduation, Hazlitt interned in Missoula, where she played in hospices, hospitals, nursing homes and private homes. She participated in a refresher internship in 2005 with fellow Chalice of Repose graduate Jane Franz as her mentor.
“There are probably less than 200 music-thanatologits worldwide and most are in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, although there are some in Japan, Australia and the Netherlands, too,” says Franz, director of the Music-Thanatology Association International training program in Eugene, Ore.
Hazlitt lives in Estes Park, Colo., and spends winters in Green Valley with her parents, Jo and John Hazlitt. She decided to get her nursing assistant certification to help in her music selection.
“I wanted to better understand the medical side of dealing with dying patients so in turn, it would help me be a better music-thanatologist,” she says.
Hazlitt’s music services are free to the patient and family although she is often subcontracted through agencies representing hospice facilities, hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities who pay for her services to help cover travel and other expenses.
Hazlitt says she is honored to be at the bedside of those who are in a coma or taken off life support, as well as those who are dying.
“I feel that it is a sacred passage,” she says. “When death is imminent, I am called to the bedside where I play prescriptive harp music that is simple and quiet, honoring the scared passage taking place by surrounding the patient and loved ones with beauty. It can open hearts for emotion and words that may need to be shared.”
Hazlitt usually plays for 30 minutes to an hour at each vigil, often Gregorian chants, Celtic music and lullabies.
Hazlitt said she had on one occasion a man refuse to listen to harp music.
“He was a truck driver and he told me that if I was there to help him out, then I should bring a guitar and know some cheatin’ songs,” Hazlitt says. “So, I went back and got my guitar and came back and sang some cheatin’ songs.”
On another occasion, the relatives of a woman who had already passed away requested Hazlitt play “When the Saints Go Marching In” before she left.
“Generally, I try to steer clear of known music because that is part of the training,” Hazlitt says. “We try to play unfamiliar and unmetered music, because when I watch their vital signs and heart rate and their body systems change, which are usually very rhythmical, I don’t want to break that natural progression by encouraging rhythmic sounds...”
Hazlitt plays during vigils long as it’s appropriate and then leaves in silence.
“It is not a performance or concert or entertainment,” she said. “It is an acknowledgement and respectful celebration of love and honor.”
Sara Wolfe, volunteer coordinator for Family Hospice of Boulder, Colo., has used Hazlitt’s services.
“What Rebecca and others in this field provide is so rewarding, and we have found it to be tremendously powerful, not only for the patient, but also for others who may be present at the time,” Wolfe says. “We continue to use the services of these musicians because it is so special.”
Registered nurse and caregiver Corby Beahm attended a November vigil where Hazlitt played at a home outside of Boulder.
“I was the woman’s caregiver at that time, so with permission from the family I contacted Rebecca to play when my client was about 24 hours from death,” Beahm said. “Rebecca’s music was so nurturing to the family, although the woman was pretty sedated and not visually responsive, her family were just so moved and grateful.”
Beahm said that even after the woman had died, Hazlitt continued to play for the sake of the family as they sat in silence and listened.
“Where words fail, music speaks,” Hazlitt says.
Regina Ford | 547-9740