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5 Questions for Tim Ringgold

A dialogue on end-of-life care

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This is the second in a series of short interviews on end-of-life care that I’m doing for  Spirituality & Health. This week I’m speaking with Tim Ringgold, a music therapist, speaker, and author. Ringgold’s professional path has been deeply informed by his personal path, especially the life and death of his special needs daughter, Bella. He writes about this experience in his book Bella’s Blessings: a Humble Story of Providence. —Sam Mowe

How does music help people approach the dying process?

It affects us physiologically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. Music addresses physiological needs by diminishing the perception of sensations like pain and nausea during a musical experience. Music making requires a person to be cognitively focused in the present moment, so issues of guilt, regret, and anxiety diminish during a music making experience. Spiritually, music connects us to a something bigger than ourselves; we connect to each other, and, if we believe in one, we find connection to a higher power through the playing and listening to songs that have spiritual meaning, like hymns, praise, and worship music.

Is there research that supports this? How do you measure it?

Yes, the music therapy field works hard to do research at all levels of the life cycle, so there are published articles, papers, and books on using music therapy at the end of life. If we are addressing pain management, we can use a verbal scale with the patient to measure pre and post session pain levels. We can also look at heart rate, blood pressure, facial affect, respiratory rate, and body posture to measure comfort and discomfort before and after a session.

How do you know what music to play?

It depends on the patient. It's all about matching their energy level, their emotional state, and their personal preference for music, and musically meeting them where they are. Music is so subjective; there is no right type of music to play, no one-size-fits-all prescription. If a patient is agitated, and the goal is to decrease agitation, we need to acknowledge and honor where they are and begin by matching the music to their state. Only once they feel validated, will they be willing to move therapeutically to a new state.

Your daughter died from a rare skin disease. And yet you still seem to have a beautiful outlook on life. How have you been able to cope with that incredible grief and transform it into something positive?

It begins with faith. Not faith in God or heaven, but faith that I can believe anything I need to believe about life and all its events. If I believe her life and death were a tragedy, then to me, they are.  Where does that leave me? Personally, it leaves me devastated. However, if I believe that her life and death were a blessing, then to me, they are. Where does that leave me? Honored, empowered, grateful to have been chosen to be her steward. Same event, different meaning. I alone am the author of that meaning. Believing this and having faith in this process has allowed me to be completely free to assign whatever meanings I want to not just her death, but any life event that seems like a challenge.

No event has a built-in meaning. So if you can truly define empowering meanings to any of life's events, you define your reality. It definitely takes practice and effort, but it's possible and available to anyone.

The second tool has been gratitude. Practicing gratitude requires transformation. In the face of a tragedy, when you ask yourself, "What in this can I be grateful for?" If you are quiet enough, your higher self will always reveal to you at least one answer, often times more than one.

The third tool has been music. Music has always been there for me. It's allowed me to feel each feeling in a richer, multidimensional way, enabling me to move through my emotions in a healthy way. The key is not to try to manipulate your grief with happy songs. Listen to sad songs, you're already sad! It's okay to be sad, it's okay to grieve hard. It just means you love hard.

What would you like people to say about you after you die?

He loved his family more than life itself. He transformed the way we think about life and death into something inclusive and empowering for all.


Sam Mowe is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. His interviews have also appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, and The Sun. He is also the editor of Lineages, a publication of the Garrison Institute. Sam is a regular contributor to Spirituality & Health. 


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