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Music and Loss

Are the musicians, poets, and artists within us the last to go?

Photo of Alyssa Frances Thompson

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When I was about 10 years old, my grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. Over the next 10 years, it felt as if I watched her slowly die a hundred times. First, there was the death of the traveler. Then, the death of the typist, the reader, and the chef. And on and on it went. I met a new person every week. Alzheimer's makes this distinct and devastating. (Though it is a bit like this with all of us. As Alice in Wonderland says, "I knew who I was this morning, but I've changed a few times since then." I remember re-reading that in my 20s and thinking: Truth...)

Years later, I saw a documentary called Alive Inside. Have you seen this as well? You watch those seemingly trapped in this hell of disease, ill in care homes.. brighten, sing, move, and simply find so much joy in music.

Memories started pouring through my mind. My grandmother (and grandfather) loved a good rummage sale (and occasionally, dumpster dive). They put together some interesting outfits (an understatement!). She occasionally insisted on these until her death. She spoke more and more in poetic than in linear form. My grandmother as poet, artist, dancer, fashionista-in-her-own-way - well, those were certainly the last to die, weren't they? Perhaps those identities grew stronger while others fell away. Sometimes I think they really did. Would they have grown stronger still had I known how to support them? 

Now, I don't want to paint Alzheimer's, or any illness, as having any kind of 'bright side'. Watching those you love be torn in this way is sheer horror and that is all. I only wonder if a greater appreciation of the poetic, the musical, the artistic - that which best transcends the merely physical realm of our existence - within myself, might have helped. 

I spend some time each week now as a caregiver with a hospice in my home of San Francisco. I was sitting outside with a man who had a diagnosis of brain cancer. His thoughts were not linear, he couldn't remember much. I didn't want to try to "make conversation" for worry it might be a stress to him, but I did know from previous visits a bit of his story. Where he came from, how old he was, what he liked to do. We sat in silence. After a while, I took out my phone. 

"Would you like to listen to music?"


"Rolling Stones? Shall I put that on?"

He shrugged and then looked at me with a kind of mischievous grin.

"It's just a shot away."

I turned on my speaker and we listened to the stones for a few hours in the garden, while he mouthed along most of the words.

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Could unlocking my inner artist now be a support at the time of my death?


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Photo of Katherine Hill


Thank you for sharing your story. I truly appreciate your final question- "can unlocking my inner artist NOW be a support at the time of my death?" It provides us the nudge to remember that personal expression is something that endures beyond many other elements of life.

My grandmother is currently experiencing the exact opposite health issue that your grandmother faced- her mind is sound and quite aware of her body failing her at every turn. She too has used music as her sanctuary. Every evening at 5pm she listens to her favorite music and sings along - Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, and the rest of the gang. Without the ability to perform a multitude of physical activities, my grandmother (at the ripe old age of 87) can still feeeeel and express in a way that no one or any amount of time can take away from her. The concept is incredibly beautiful and humbling. 

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