Welcome to my Blog

This Blog is a collection of my thoughts and experiences as a music therapist and human being working with people at the end of their lives in hospice. In my experience I have seen some amazing things- things that have given me a glimse of something bigger. I have learned that in our suffering, in our doubt, there is also room for beauty and a deeper sense of the divine. Music taps into the rhythms of the earth and at the same time transcends it. I want to share my experiences from the past and from each day moving forward. Hopefully one or two people will find it interesting. Please visit my Web-sites at http://www.nielsenmtbc.com/ or http://www.musictherapycd.com/

Please note that I take client confidentiality very seriously. Names and sometimes other details have been changed to protect the identities of my clients.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Death Of Osama Bin Laden

It seemed the hateful acts of 9/11, and the country's reaction to it caused us to go to some very dark places as a nation, and it caused a rift that seemed almost impossible to heal. It feels to me that this is why things have gotten so ugly now.

God's gift of free will made it possible for people like Osama Bin Laden and Adolf Hitler to exist, but it also gave us people like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and the list goes on. Too many people have died from the acts of September 11th and in all that came after- too many families forever changed- this country far too divided. I find it very hard to celebrate on this day.

I am proud of and eternally grateful for all those who risked and lost their lives to keep us safe. I feel renewed hope today, that maybe we can move on; maybe we can start heal this giant rift in our country, maybe people will ratchet down this hate that seems to be consuming us. Call me a pollyannish optimist, but I would like to hope something good can ultimately come out of his death.

I hope and pray that we can start to find our way back to heal that rift and come together again. One nation... I don't know how, but I know we have to find a way home.

It is up for each of us to make the choice in our lives:

We can create or destroy.
We can hurt or heal.
We can love or hate.

By the same token, we can yell at each other, or work together to create a better world for all of us. Sometimes I need reminding of this too.

Ultimately it comes down to us to make the right choices.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Leo's Story

Leonard's Story
A year and a half before the storm, Leo's wife died a difficult death from Breast Cancer, a cancer that would have been treatable if they could have been able to afford better health coverage. Leonard was a good man, but he was poor, as were most of his neighbors. His wife had been his soul mate- many considered them inseparable. Leo had just himself fought a long battle with prostate cancer, a battle he thought he had won.
Then the storm came.
Leo chose to stay home, rather than face the already backed up evacuation traffic. He also had all of his memories in that house- the thought of leaving was like the thought of leaving his wife all over again. The winds came first, shaking the small home where he and his wife had spent so many years. He listened as the shingles were ripped from his roof. Then the rain came. Then the flood came. It came fast- very fast. Leo climbed up into his home's small attic, but the water continued to rise. Like many New Orleanians, Leo kept a hatchet in his attic. He used that hatchet to cut a hole in the roof- not an easy task for a man approaching 80.
There was no light and the dark windowless attic. Daybreak had arrived through the storm clouds. As he chopped through the attic in the darkness, he saw more and more light shining through the hole. He knew that he was still alive for now. He climbed out onto his rooftop and as he sat on his rooftop island the reality slowly sunk in.
Everything was gone. Every picture and photo album was gone- everything that tied him to his wife was now under 10 feet of water and would never be recovered. Every record album, one of Leo's few indulgences, was gone. His home was gone.
And to make matters worse, as with many poor New Orlean's residents, he had to wait 3 days- 3 DAYS for rescue.
After he was evacuated he went to live with some family in Minnesota. After a month in Minnesota, he went to see a doctor. He was noticing some pain and other symptoms. The doctor did the tests and sure enough the Prostate Cancer had returned. It had metastasized everywhere and there was no possibility of treatment. He was given 3 months to live.

This is when I met Leonard- a few days after his admission to hospice. By this part of the story I couldn't imagine the pain and loss he felt.
“You have lost so much”, was all I could manage to say.
He sighed for a moment, and then said:
“I have lost a lot son. But you know what? I am a lucky man- the luckiest of all”.
WHAT??? I said to myself- how can this man call himself lucky?
“Lucky?”, I asked.
“Lucky”, he said.
I am Alive. I have my family- at least what I have left of them. I didn't die in that flood or end up like so many others there. I have this moment- this moment to listen to the leaves in the trees and the birds singing in them. I have this moment to breathe in this air. I have this moment to thank God for the life that I have- the live that I’ve been given. And now after a life of toils and snares, I am going to be with my Lord. I'll hold my wife in my arms again soon. I see now that the struggles I have faced have taught me so much. Now I know just how much being alive means. Things are just things- I can't take them with me when I go. I thought I would have rather died at home, but now I know I was meant to be with my family here. God gave me storms, but he gave me so many beautiful things. The storm put me on that roof, but it was God who lifted me off that roof when I thought I would surely die. That rescue crew was sent by Him- they had answered the call. And I know it is God who sends people like you to me now. Now I see God everywhere. You can't truly see the light, until you've seen the darkness.”

How many of us can say we have a faith like that?
Faith that through the storm there is light...
Faith that through pain and death, there is healing and life...
Faith that does not question why God allows suffering, but merely understands suffering as a part of this life. And that it's what we and others do with the suffering that matters.

Precious Lord, Take my Hand, lead me on, let me stand.
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.
Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light.
Take my hand, precious Lord, and lead me home.

- Song: Precious Lord, Take my Hand, by Thomas Dorsey

Monday, April 4, 2011


This is adapted from many sources and I do not take exclusive authorship. This is for a piece we are doing at Ridgeview's Service of Remebrance.

There was once a caterpillar. Since the time he hatched from his egg, he crawled around, climbed trees, and munched on leaves. All he ever ate was leaves. It was the only life he knew. He loved climbing and munching on his leaves. The more leaves he ate, the more he grew… and grew… and grew… and grew.
Each time his body grew, he would go through a change. His old skin would come off and he would have new, bigger skin waiting to come out. He had no idea that an even bigger change was coming.
When he grew as big as he could, he felt something in his body start to change. A shell began to form around him. Little by little it covered over his whole body.
The caterpillar knew something was changing. He knew he had to do this, but he was afraid. What was going to happen to him? Would he still be able to crawl around and munch on leaves when this was over?
As time went on in his little cocoon, the little caterpillar could feel his body changing, but he didn’t know what it was changing into.
Then one day his cocoon started to crack open. At first our friend didn’t know what to do, but then he began to push his was out. It was hard work, but he had to do it for himself. He pushed and pushed his way out. When he was finally all the way out, he felt completely different. He had only 6 legs, a longer nose, and what were these?
His wet wings were floppy, but over a few hours they grew out from his body.
What was this?
“How will I ever crawl like I used to? What will I eat now?” He asked himself.
He wanted to go back to being a caterpillar. Eating leaves and crawling was all he ever knew. Being a caterpillar was  all he knew how to be. But he couldn’t go back no matter how much he wanted to.
But then something happened. As he spread his wings, the wind caught them and lifted him right off his branch. What would he do now? Somehow he knew to flap his wings, and slowly he began to fly.
After a while he loved to fly. From the air, everything looked different than when he was just moving from leaf to leaf as a caterpillar. The world was a much bigger place than he ever could have imagined. Then he discovered something else. He liked to eat nectar from flowers- it was sweet and so good. Our butterfly friend had discovered a new life- and he liked it. Sometimes he missed the safety of being a caterpillar, but he loved being able to fly.
When someone we love dies, they are transformed from one state to another. We who remain are also changed. Just like the butterfly, our lives will never be the same as they used to be before our loss. As much as we may want to, we cannot go back to being that person we once were. But we can draw hope in our new life, wisdom from our experiences, and know to love all the more, those we love and the lives we share with them.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Mortality and Wholeness- a lesson from Science Fiction

"Beyond the reach of the ressurection ships, something began to change.
We could feel a sense of time as if each moment held its own significance.
We began to realize that for our existence to hold any value, it must end. To live meaningful lives, we must die and not return.
The one human flaw that you spend your lifetimes distressing over,
mortality, is the one thing, well it's the one thing that makes you whole."

-Cylon Model 6, a machine seeking to find a way to permanently end her immortality, from the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Everybody’s Got The Blues- Jake’s Story

Jake was an 8 year-old boy, who’s mom had endstage pancreatic cancer. I met Jake for the first time a couple of weeks before his mother died. Jake was very angry the day I came to see his mother. He was lashing out verbally at relatives, throwing objects, and almost pushed a television over. It was a warm summer day and I asked Jake to come outside with me to talk. When we got outside, Jake started to yell about all of the things he was angry about. “My life sucks”, “my mom’s sick and she’s going to die”, “My dad left me when I was little”, “I’m going to be all alone when my mom dies”, “We family’s poor and I never have what other kids have- now I’m alone”, “I just feel like laying down right here and dying”. “Now this jerk comes here with a guitar and is supposed to make it all better- yeah right!” This was a child who was in a lot of pain. I wanted to help, but he was angry at me too. He was angry at everything and everyone, including his mom for dying. He had no constructive means to express these feelings, let alone examine these feeling- it was just coming out as pure rage.

In a bit of a risk as a therapist, I began to improvise a blues song over a blues pattern I played on the guitar, using the words and phrases Jake was yelling. At first he gave me an angry look, then a small smile came, then he laughed, and then the tears came. He said, “boy I know more about the blues than almost anyone my age in the whole world.” We started to write down the song and Jake was able to make changes to lyrics and guide the music. After a while he was talking about his feelings. He said, “I feel sad, but it just comes out as mad”. Over the course of 3-4 sessions we wrote his “Blues Song”. The end result wasn’t so important as the fact that he was able to express his feelings of anger and his grief in a way that didn’t involve breaking televisions. He was able to take these feelings, give them structure, and deal with them.
After his mom died, Jake wouldn’t talk to anyone about his feelings. His grandmother described him as “angry all the time”. For several sessions after the death, Jake refused to talk to me about his mom’s death. Instead, we ended up making music with keyboards and drums. This seemed to engender more trust even though it didn’t initially seem things were progressing. One day I entered the house with only a drum. He was arguing with his grandmother when I arrived. The three of us started talking about the anger. He said, “Sometimes I get so mad I just want to break something” I asked Jake how he would tell the drum how he feels. I gave him the mallet and he said, “What do I do?” I said, “Show the drum how you feel”. He warned, “I might break it.” I said, “I have more drums”. This model of Remo drum is almost indestructible- almost. I suggested he say something he was mad about and then hit the drum to show the feeling.
He wound up- “I’m mad because my mom died”. I held the drum far from me as he hit it very hard. “I’m mad because my dad left me” ---BOOM went the drum. “I’m mad because I’m all alone in the world” ---BOOM! “I’m mad at my friends for picking on me for being poor” --- BOOM! He went through a long list as my arm grew tired and my drum started coming apart. Then he ended by saying, “I’m mad at my mom” --- BOOM! “I’m mad at her leaving me”--- BOOM! “I’m mad at God for taking her away from me and making my life so hard”--- CRACK went the drumhead with the final swing. Then tears came again. We talked about letting feelings go instead of hiding them and that it was alright to feel sad, confused, or angry.
His overall anger at school and home was better after that point. We continue to meet from time to time and he is now open with his feelings. Jake faces many challenges in his life and has faced a lot of pain. This is the beginning of a very long healing process for him, but music therapy helped him get it started.

Here’s Jake's blues song:

Everybody’s, everybody’s got the blues
I said, Everybody’s, everybody’s got the blues
I’m gonna lay down on the ground, lay right down and die

Even though I got the blues, I know my life’s been good.
Even though I got the blues, I know my life’s been good.
If you’ve never met the blues, someday you’ll get the blues too

My family’s gone away, so now I’m all alone
My family’s gone away, so now I’m all alone
So all I want is something that will make me happy

My pappy never let me play, and so he went away
My pappy never let me play, and then he went away
Now I only see him on some certain days

*My mom got sick and died, so now I’m mad and cry
My mom got sick and died, so all I do is cry
All I want to know is why, why, why?

When you’ve got the blues, you don’t know when it will go away
When you’ve got the blues, you don’t know when it will go away
Even though I’m sad I hope it will be gone some day.

Even though I got the blues, I know my life’s been good.
Even though I got the blues, one day my life will be good.

*verse written after mom’s death, the rest of the song was written before mom’s death.