Living With Dying articles

Musical Pharmaceuticals

By Leah Carey
May 24, 2016

BARTON — Linda Schneck met death at a very early age. 

“When I was nine, my father died right in front of me of a heart attack,” she recalled. “It was very traumatic.”

As time went on, it was almost like death followed her.

“I’ve had many personal experiences with death. I lost a child. My brother died fairly young. In fact I would be traveling somewhere – I’d be at a retreat center and someone would be dying and I would end up helping out,” she said. “I just kept meeting death in my life. Some people can live to be 40 or 50 and never even have a death in their life. But I, from an early age…”

Her voice faded out in a moment of contemplation. And it is this contemplation around death that informs much of what Linda now does and who she is.

Music thanatology

“I’m a music thanatologist,” Linda explained. “I have my little black bag of pharmaceuticals. That’s how I think of my bag with my pieces of music that I work with. Musical pharmaceuticals.”

Linda went through a two-year masters level training in which she studied not only music, but also anatomy, physiology, disease processes, vital signs and more. The practice has gained acceptance in the clinical medical world and Linda even charts her results in the nurses’ notes.

“What we do is prescriptive music,” said Linda. “It was started about 50 years ago by a woman named Therese Schroeder-Sheker, who had experiences in a nursing home where someone was dying and was in agony. She held him and started to sing. She said his respirations changed with the meter of how she was singing.”

When Linda enters a hospital room she makes an assessment of the patient, especially noting vital signs. She then plays the harp in concert with the patient’s vital signs.

For instance, if a patient’s breathing is fast and labored, she synchronizes her playing to those rhythms. “And then gradually, very slowly, I slow it down. And they will most likely come with me.”

“I can take one piece of thematic material and play it many different ways, depending on if I need to stimulate or soothe or cool or warm – any of those qualities, I can play that one piece of music in many different ways,” Linda said. “I’m working with the respiration. But I’m also playing beautiful music, so it’s also affecting the soul, the heart, the spirit.”

The practice of music as medicine is as old as time.

“In ancient Greece, it was thought that the physician had to be a musician,” explained Linda. “How could you understand the body and the rhythms of the body and rest and stimulation and all the dynamic variability that we use and need to live, if you weren’t also a musician?”

Unraveling from identity

Linda finds this idea appealing because the human body is attuned to many different rhythms – hormonal, chemical, circadian and more.

“I loved rock music as a teenager. It’s really rhythmic and pulsing, and it makes sense because you’re really incarnating into your body. You’re coming into your body and it make sense that all young people want this music,” Linda said. “But when you’re older, when you’re dying, you’re excarnating. You don’t so much want [rhythms].”

“What happens when you’re dying is often there’s an unbinding of these natural rhythms of the body. Often you’ll see someone with their pulse going way up – maybe 130 beats per minute. And their respirations will drop. Or vice versa. Our rhythms that are bound when we’re healthy in a pretty natural way, they work together. They come unraveled [when we’re dying].”

“Our identity is unraveling from who we used to be,” Linda continued. “Now we’re not the mother, the father, the caretaker. Now we’re being taken care of. Everything is unraveling and reforming anew. And we see that in the body too.”

As they lay dying

It’s not just the vital signs that change as someone enters the final step of the crossing-over journey. “You’ll also notice that there’s a different – I want to say, aliveness, rather than dying – there’s a different quality about that person. You can just sense it.”

“The person is moving into new realms and I have to be able to go with them, as far as I can go,” Linda continued. “I can only go so far, and then there’s a threshold where they go off. And I can feel that as that’s happening.”

Linda has been at the bedsides of scores of people as they passed out of this life and she said it’s common for people to see loved ones coming for them.

“I don’t know how many times people have seemed to be in an unconscious state and all of a sudden their eyes open and they smile, sometimes they even speak and say, ‘Oh Harold!’” she said. “It’s really moving and a great privilege to be with people as they’re moving across that threshold.”

“I remember talking to my teacher one time. I said, ‘I get half way through a vigil and then I feel like I don’t know what to do. There’s nothing else I have to offer’,” Linda remembered. “And my teacher said, ‘Ah. That’s when the vigil begins.’ When you’ve given all you have, you let go of everything you have. And truly that’s the way to be with people who are dying. Because that’s what they’re doing. That’s what they’re doing every moment.”

To learn more about Linda Schneck, visit

A Graceful Goodbye - Personal reflections from Leah

In the final months of my mom’s life, my mind started going crazy. I became fixated on feeling incapable of moving forward with my life if she wasn’t here to guide and support me. When we were together, I spent most of my time crying.

One day Mom’s best friend Sue said something that knocked me out of feeling sorry for myself. The three of us were laughing uproariously at something silly, as we often did. Out of nowhere, Sue said, “This is a moment of grace.”

She said that Mom would continue to have good days and bad days. There would be messes to clean up, but there would also be moments like this – enjoying each other’s company just as we always had. It is the moments of grace that make the rest doable, she reminded us, so we needed to pay attention and treasure them.

It’s a sentiment we hear all the time in ways that have become cliché – be present, live in the now, etc. But in that moment, I heard it in a way that felt utterly un-cliché.

My mom was still alive. I could still laugh with her, hug her, and drive each other crazy as only a mother and daughter can do. I didn’t want to miss a moment of it by mourning her before she was gone.

The next day, I purchased a necklace that says GRACE and I wore it every day for the rest of Mom’s life – to remind me.

Things weren’t perfect. There were really hard days. I still cried. But I made a conscious effort to not miss the good stuff.

Now I wear a necklace that has a bit of Mom’s ashes in it, and it serves a similar purpose.

This week I was asked to write a piece about this newspaper series for the Montpelier-based non-profit, The Wake Up To Dying Project (it will be part of their June 7 newsletter.) At their website, they have an amazing audio library of stories about life, death and grieving.

In one of the stories, “All The Junk Fell Away,” a woman describes how she and her husband recorded some of their favorite memories together in a journal during the final weeks of his life. Her voice is filled with joy as she tells the story.

She once again reminded me – the moments of grace live on after our loved one dies.

You can find the Wake Up To Dying Project online at

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