Stories from Dr. Yukari, Story 49, Swan Song

[ Stories from Dr. Yukari ]

Guided by the hope of St. Nichiren, we continue to work towards a peaceful society. Honolulu Myohoji Mission collaborates with Psychologist Dr. Yukari Kunisue, a trained and experienced therapeutic life coach, to offer a safe online space: Stories from Dr. Yukari

Franz Schubert composed a piece titled, Swan Song based on the famous legend that a swan sings beautifully once before its death. When Ben in Bradford, a small town in England started the Swan Song Project with the familiar concept in mind. 

Before Ben’s grandmother passed away, she was suffering from Alzheimer’s for many years. Towards the end of her life she lived in a care home, ate through a food tube, wore a diaper, and could not recognize any of her family members. This was definitely a heartbreaking sight to see everyone’s favorite grandma in a debilitating condition. She taught her grandchildren to love music and sing many songs together. 

A little before she passed away, Ben and his uncle visited her at her bedside. Ben’s profession involved writing music and singing which connected back to his family’s love of music. His uncle also sang quite well and they played the guitar and sang many songs in her room. She responded positively to the music and her expressionless face soon changed. Surprisingly, her fingers started to dance on the bed and her lips began to move. Everyone’s beloved Grandma showed signs of spirit.

She passed away shortly after the visit. However, Ben could not forget about the day she was showing signs of life singing along and responding to the music through her “finger dancing”. It was after this moment when he realized that music has the ability to reach deep within people’s hearts no matter what their condition is. 

Ben soon volunteered to visit hospice patients with his guitar. At the beginning, he was simply playing the instrument and performed for the crowd. He soon noticed that many of them had things they wanted to express before they passed. In other words, they had unfinished business. Yet, it is not always easy to communicate with loved ones. It is even harder when there is a negative attitude surrounding the situation. With this in mind, Ben came up with an idea where the hospice patients could write songs, add music to it, and sing it out loud. 

Ben called this the Swan Song Project, the beautiful song that one can sing for the last time. Many of the patients he worked with had no prior experience to song writing or composing poems. Many were hesitant to participate at first insisting that they were not musically inclined. 

Little by little, Ben encouraged them to create their songs one line at a time. Sometimes, they were able to compose a song within one visit. Other times, they needed several visits in order to complete a full song with lots of encouragement. Their messages first started as a poem, then later it became a song. They practiced the song with Ben and sometimes even recorded it into a CD. Some gave away these CDs to friends and family while others uploaded the songs to websites including Youtube. 

A woman sang, “I am not dying because of cancer! I live with cancer until the very day I go!”

Another man sang to his children, “there were hard times, there were failures, but it’s OK. This is my story. My own story!”

Another patient named Allen used to work as a teacher, but now is dying with a degenerative condition known as neuron disease. While he is not an expressive person, he composed the song “we can do this!”. While he had a difficult time communicating these words to his wife and children, he sang passionately to encourage them. While his voice is slightly out of tune, it came straight from his heart. 

Ben explained, “there are many ways of saying goodbye”. The contents of the messages are unique to that individual. On a positive note, all of the songs have an uplifting tone and none of the songs were sad. Musicians often make songs when they are at a crossroads or have a hard time finding the right plan of action. When we sing a song, the song itself can give us power. This is the same for the concept of the Swan Song for patients. Those who have no prior experience singing with a microphone happily sang alongside Ben and his guitar. There is a saying that goes,”my friends and family can hear my song at my funeral”.

No one really knows if a dying swan will sing the last song and if such a song ceases to exist, it must be a song that teaches us the importance of what we have in life. This is similar to Ben’s grandmother who has passed, along with the other hospice patients who have sang alongside Ben.