I was scrolling through my extensive list of unusual holidays and awareness months the other day and noticed that October is Liver Cancer Awareness Month. Without warning, I was flooded with memories of a hospice patient I worked with several years ago.
It really is astounding how that can happen – how memories of someone can come rushing back when you least expect it. I wouldn’t say it happens to me frequently, but it happens often enough that I am regularly aware of it. I suppose that is the blessing and the curse of having worked with so many people during a very emotionally difficult time of their life. Not to mention getting to share the music these individuals lived during this time of their life and sometimes getting the honor of playing their music for them as they transitioned out of this life.
I can hear a specific song and suddenly the face of a patient I haven’t seen in 10 years pops up in my mind. I can flip through my sheet music binder, see a piece of music with someone else's handwriting on it and immediately feel myself back in my internship, sitting next to a client as she directed me how to correctly play this song. I can drive by any number of cemeteries in the area and be reminded of the funerals I’ve attended and sung at. I can see and smell the stargazer lilies that grow in my front garden and be reminded of a patient I brought a planter, dirt, and bulbs to in order to help her remember the joy of gardening in her yard. I can see that October is Liver Cancer Awareness Month and immediately see myself back in the bedroom of a particular hospice patient with a liver-related diagnosis who taught me so much about myself, about interacting with others, about therapy, about needing to be heard, and about the value of presence.
I can say without hesitation that I am a better therapist and a better person because of this patient (let’s call her Elise – not her real name). Now, I grow and learn from all of my patients/clients, but Elise taught me much more than most. You see, I started seeing Elise with an agenda. I wanted to use a new therapeutic technique I had learned and she seemed to be an excellent candidate to use it with. She was an amazing person and allowed herself to be open to my clearly apparent over-excitement. We did a few sessions together according to my agenda, but she eventually let me know, very gently, that she needed to be heard first. For Elise, storytelling and sharing events from her past (or as we call it in therapy, reminiscence or life review) was where she really got the most out of our time together.
Elise shared so much about her life with me. I felt so honored that she trusted me enough to let me be witness to her retelling the greatest joys and darkest sorrows of her life. She taught me that some of my best work as a therapist comes from the power of presence – simply being a witness to what someone has to bring to the relationship. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t just sit there and let her talk at me for the two hours we were together every week. She also taught me how to gauge when and where to speak up and the importance of questions rather than statements. The real power of therapy is letting the person work out their own difficulties, not having the therapist solve their problems for them. Elise reminded me that I already knew that.
Elise also helped me learn to navigate difficult interpersonal relationships. She had quite a few stories about interpersonal struggles in her life, both past and present, and sharing those stories with me allowed me to see how my life was similar. Of course, I didn’t share this with her at the time, as that would have been inappropriate. She also gave me the honor of helping her work through a past difficult struggle that had no way of coming to a conclusion in the present day, but she was able to find a conclusion of her own through our work together. It was through that work that I continued to realize the power of music therapy (Guided Imagery and Music, to be exact) and allowed me to be a stronger therapist.
Elise also taught me the importance of going above and beyond to help people. She had been incredibly active in a tight-knit community for many years and had many friends she hadn’t seen in a long time. She had learned of an event this community was holding that she wanted to attend but wasn’t able to by herself and her husband wasn’t able to take her either. I made a few phone calls and was able to get us in to the event. While the event itself was amazing, what was most unforgettable was watching Elise’s face throughout it. I had more fun watching her than watching the event. We hung back afterward for at least 45 minutes so she could reconnect with old friends and tell old stories. I know, according to some, I shouldn’t have taken her to this event for one reason or another, but I will never regret it and it is near the top of the best things I’ve ever done in my career.
Elise was discharged from hospice rather suddenly. We weren’t afforded the opportunity to have one last session together to provide closure to our time together. She lived for several more years before succumbing to her disease process. I attended her funeral and felt an incredible sense of loss. I still do.