St. Jude Music Therapist Records Child's Heartbeat And Uses It In A Song For Grieving Parents

by Christine Burke
Originally Published: 

When my father passed away, his funeral arrangements went by in a blur. There were just so many decisions to make: flowers, prayer cards, what to serve at the post-funeral luncheon. Losing a loved one is a bewildering, damning process and having to decide whether or not to serve Italian cookies as a dessert at lunch can come as a shock. You spend the days leading up to the funeral wondering how on earth you will mark the legacy of the person you loved so much.

In my case, I longed to do my father’s memory justice. I wanted to capture everything I loved about him and convey to everyone who came to his funeral service just how much he’d be missed. What I didn’t realize is that, when you lose a loved one unexpectedly, it’s hard to process your feelings and emotions. My father died while battling esophageal cancer, and though I knew his death was an eventuality, nothing prepared me for the finality of his loss.

What’s more: Nothing prepared me for the crippling grief that followed after he passed away.

As my family planned a service we didn’t intend to have so quickly, we went through the motions of trying to honor his memory. He loved roses, so naturally, we picked roses for his casket. He was a devoted Catholic, so we planned a mass with all of his favorite hymns.

And he loved nothing more than a glass of Scotch in a Waterford rocks glass, so on the night before his funeral, we all toasted his picture with his favorite libation.

But when all was said and done, when all the bereavement flowers had wilted and all of the condolence lasagnas were consumed, I was left with the hard task of picking up the pieces. And I was left to worry that I wouldn’t remember the tiny details of his earthly body — the way his hands looked when he held my children, the smell of his aftershave on his freshly shaven face, his characteristic cough when he was sick.

Grieving is hard enough, but it’s even harder when you don’t have a tangible reminder of your loved one. And when a parent is grieving the loss of a child, there are no words that can truly lift a parent’s devastation.

But the folks at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital have figured out a way to honor a child’s legacy, and it’s heartbreakingly beautiful. When I heard about what they do for grieving parents, my heart ached because I would have loved to have a keepsake like this from my dad.

Amy Love, a music therapist at St. Jude Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, is tasked with the delicate work of helping parents preserve a legacy for children at the end of their cancer battles.

After years of treatments, it can be monumentally overwhelming (and earth-shatteringly devastating) for a parent to realize they will outlive their child. And that’s putting it lightly because there are truly no words that could ever convey this level of heartbreak and grief.

Love’s job involves using music to help ease the grief and suffering parents feel when their child passes away. And the way she does it will bring you to your knees. Trust.

Using a microphone attached to a stethoscope, she records the heartbeat of the child. Then, with the help of some soundboard magic, she uses the child’s heartbeat to make the beat of a cherished song, chosen by the parents. Parents often chose a favorite lullaby or song that is meaningful to their family in some way. And when their child’s heartbeat is blended with the music, the result is both haunting and stunning.

Really, I dare you to watch this video and not be moved beyond words.

What makes this gesture so incredible is that it gives parents a tangible way to “hear” the life they used to share with their precious baby. The song not only helps to keep memories fresh and alive, but it also gives parents a legacy that will last long after their child’s death.

I was reminded of a long-forgotten Trisha Yearwood song called, “The Song Remembers When,” when I heard this amazing story from St. Jude. In the song, Yearwood hears a familiar song on the radio while in the grocery store and instantly recalls a time when she and a boyfriend were happy and in love.

During times when we are struggling, songs “remember when” for us, revealing to us the little details we want to hold close — and never ever forget.

Music can help us find a rhythm to our grief and give us something to cling to in the midst of unimaginable pain. My father loved country music, and often, music was the language we could speak most easily to each other, particularly in my teenage years. Since his death, his favorite songs have become a treasure to me, a link to a time gone by, and I’m grateful for the fleeting moments I get with him in my car, when one of his favorite tunes floats across my radio.

Amy Love, through her music therapy expertise, is giving families a gift that will forever bind them to their child in a unique, meaningful way.

And this gesture, this priceless gift, that St. Jude gives parents who are suffering most is a beautiful tribute. It is also a stark reminder for the rest of us to hold our children a little closer when we sing them to sleep tonight. Not every parent gets that privilege, and it’s heartbreaking.

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