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The Power of Song and Presence

Eugene Dufour, past president of the Ontario Palliative Care Association and the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association, who has been working in the area of mental health, hospice, palliative and pastoral care for the past 25 years, shares some of his poignant reflections.

Look For The Flicker Of Life:

I had been working with, or what I like to call “walking with” a couple that had been referred by an Employee Assistance Program. This couple had just experienced the death of their 17 year old son. Believing counseling to be a sign of weakness, they had never been to a therapist before. Despite my best efforts, I did not feel that we made a connection and did not think that I would see them again. But for the next 8 months they came faithfully to each session and it turned out to be a powerful experience for all of us. 

At the end of our last session I told them that I had thought that they would not return after our first encounter and asked them why they had continued with the counseling. They explained that they had had a very strange but comforting experience when they left my office. Their appointments were always in the evening and after the first session, as they were walking down the stairs, the street light in front of the office had begun to flicker. The couple felt that this was a sign from their son encouraging them to keep going on their journey of healing. The couple shared that this experience happened frequently as they were leaving my office. I had never seen the street light flicker when I left in the evening.

One night, about a year latter, I was leaving the office feeling somewhat dejected. The four sessions that I had just completed had not gone particularly well and I was questioning my ability to be a therapist. As I walked down the stairs of the front porch I looked up at the street light just in time to notice that the light was flickering. I felt a strange but comforting feeling and was encouraged to keep going on this journey of healing.

February 1996

Mrs. H:

Mrs. H was living with excruciating pain due to advanced breast cancer that had spread to create open wounds on most of her upper body. The Care Team was doing everything possible to address the physical, emotional and spiritual pain.

Despite her suffering, Mrs. H continued to have an engaging way about her. One morning, after a particularly long night, she asked to go outside. Well, we were experiencing one of those legendary Perth County snow storms so, going outside was not an option. The Life Enrichment staff member suggested that we take Mrs., H to the dining room which has many windows that let in the brightness of the day. Three staff and I got Mrs. H as comfortable as possible in a reclining chair and off we went to spend a few hours in a light filled room. We brought along a CD player and a CD called Gentle Waters from the Room 217 collection. After listening to the song How Great Thou Art, Mrs. H started to reflect on her life and shared some wonderful wisdom with us that afternoon. That song had significant meaning to her and it became a bridge from the past to the present with stories that were important for her and some teachings for us.

I again realized how the power of music can touch and open our hearts. Mrs. H died the next day surrounded by some family members and the family of her long term care home.

May 2, 2008

The Power of Song:

Music has always played a part in my “walking” with the dying and bereaved. The power of song was shown to be truly empowering in this story about Lee.

Lee, a forty year old man, was in his last hours of physical life. He was a very proud person and feared being totally dependent on other people, especially when it came to personal care. About an hour before he died he had to ask, for the first time, for assistance to use the bathroom. A nurse and I helped him to the bathroom and the nurse could sense his embarrassment. She asked Lee what his favorite song was and he replied Morning Has Broken. The nurse started singing this song immediately. It was the most off key rendition of the song that I had ever heard, but at the same time it was the most beautiful delivery of the song that I had ever heard. I will always remember the moment. Singing the song took the focus off the indignity of Lee’s needing help to go to the bathroom and put it on the beauty of the words and the actions of this nurse. Lee and his family spent the remainder of their time together listening to the recorded version of the song as he made the transition from this world to the next. I learned that day about combining the power of song and the power of presence.

March 19, 2008

Eugene Dufour

Editor’s Note:  Eugene Dufour received his Bachelors and Masters degree from King’s College at the University of Western Ontario. He is a clinically trained Individual, Marital and Family Therapist, Chaplin, Bereavement Specialist, Compassion Fatigue Educator and Therapist and a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Facilitator. He has served as president of the Ontario Palliative Care Association and the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association, is a an international speaker and provides critical incident stress debriefing sessions to numerous government departments and agencies, HIV/AIDS organizations, hospitals and community groups. Eugene is presently working with a number of long term care facilities and continues his private practice providing bereavement and trauma therapy. In 2002 Eugene was presented with the Commemorative Medal for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 2nd‘s Golden Jubilee for his work in hospice palliative care.