Chinese therapist uses music to bring peace to the terminally ill in the US

Liu Xiaotian Photo: Courtesy of Liu Xiaotian

For 26-year-old Liu Xiaotian, whenever her music helped alleviate the pain of terminally ill patients and lighten their mood, her conviction that she made the right decision to move to a foreign country thousands of miles from her home in China was strengthened.

Providing comfort

For two years, Liu made a home for herself in the US as a musical therapist providing hospice care to terminally ill patients.

Growing up in Xi’an, Northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, Liu learned about art therapy from books that her father brought home from his job at a publishing house.

“When I was introduced to this field, I felt at once that it was for me, because I love music and had always wanted to do something that could help people,” Liu recalled, adding that since there was no college in China that had such a major, she applied to study it at the University of Kansas in the US for her bachelor’s degree.

Yet Liu did not learn much about hospice care in particular until her last year in college.

“I was at a loss about what to do in the future. Then I learned that the hospice field has a music therapy program… so I decided to do that for my internship,” she said in a phone interview with the Global Times.

The job looks simple enough: Arrive at the destination, check former diagnosis and treatment records and then start a session; after a session, write down an evaluation and report information at a weekly meeting.

However, considering the different factors involving each patient, which include level of pain, mood, quality of life and religious beliefs, a lot of preparation work needs to be done before each session starts.

The first patient Liu worked with was a 24-year-old man named Alai (pseudonym), who was suffering from a muscular disease that left him paralyzed. He was only expected to live another six months.

“Seeing someone my age dying was very difficult for me to deal with,” Liu said, adding that Alai could neither move nor speak, and only came into eye contact with her occasionally. “As an inexperienced therapist, I was very nervous. So I just sat at his bedside and played a few soothing tunes on my guitar or hummed.”

Noticing Alai’s aunt Maury, who was Alai’s sole caretaker, was anxious and panicking all the time, Liu suggested that she write down anything she wanted to say to Alai and the two would write a song for the young man. Learning that Alai loved music and had always wanted to play the guitar, Liu downloaded a guitar app onto an iPad. As Maury helped Alai strum the “strings” on the screen, Liu sang the song they wrote for him. Liu said she knew she was on the right path when she saw Alai and Maury smile for the first time.

Liu also recalled an elderly woman in her 80s, Akasha (pseudonym), who lived in a nursing home. An Alzheimer’s sufferer with only a few weeks’ left to live, she had a very bad temper.

“The first time I met her, she ignored me and said she wasn’t interested in music,” Liu recalled. Later someone told her that Akasha loved Elvis Presley’s songs. On her next visit, Liu sang Presley’s “Love Me Tender” for Akasha. After the song, Akasha relaxed and began to talk to Liu, sharing her life story, which due to her disease came out a bit confused. Akasha then asked Liu if she could sing “Don’t be Cruel.”

During the third song Akasha asked Liu to sing, the elderly woman began to weep. Each time Liu finished, Akasha would ask her to play it again. After repeating the song again and again, eventually Liu began weeping with her.

“Later she held my hand and said, ‘Thank you. That was my favorite song.’ That was a very different Akasha from the one I had met before,” Liu said. Although Liu promised to sing Elvis for their next session, the woman passed away before Liu had a chance to do so.

Finding meaning

While experiences like these were rewarding, after about a year and a half they started to have an emotional toll.

“Twice while driving down the highway, I couldn’t keep myself from crying while listening to music on the radio,” Liu said, explaining that she had a hard time letting go of the patients who had passed away.

Another half a year later, she decided to take a break from work to collect herself. Currently, she is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in the US.

Looking back at her experiences, Liu said that she was happy that the power of music allowed her to access other people’s inner worlds and experience emotions that she finds difficult to describe in words. In the end, it gave her the strength she needed to go it on her own in a completely foreign country.

“I discovered meaning for my life here. The heart-to-heart interactions with these people helped me feel less lonely,” Liu told the Global Times.

Liu said she sometimes thinks about heading back home to China and establishing a similar hospice care program, but feels that the social stigmas around would make it difficult.

“Because it concerns many aspects, including the patient, families, the hospital, the therapist and the artist, it is not easy to get these people to agree on end-of-life care. Related laws and regulations are still needed to solve possible issues,” Liu said.

Liu’s stance was echoed by Xia Xueluan, a professor at Peking University. In an interview with the Singapore-based paper Lianhe Zaobao, Xia pointed out that end-of-life care runs counter to the traditional Chinese concept of filial piety, which demands a son or daughter do everything they can to saving a dying parent right up until the end.

Source: Global Times

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