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This Tucson therapist provides end-of-life care that does more than words can — with a harp

As the daughter of leukemia researchers, Bea Krauss is no stranger to serious illness. She grew up with a deep understanding of what comforts people at the end of their lives, and as an adult, dedicated her life to providing whatever help she could.

As a student of both psychology and music, she’s found a unique career path as a hospice musician. She visits with patients at Casa de la Luz Hospice in Tucson, offering musical performances on the harp, which she’s been playing for decades.

Krauss spoke with The Show.

Full conversation

BEA KRAUSS: I have a great, big, fat folder of music, meditative, religious, popular, et cetera that I bring. And often the patients are not conscious. Other times I'm able to ask. And sometimes if someone is really dying, you don't want to bring them back with something familiar. You wanna really give them something unfamiliar and meditative and let them go. I do have some go-to songs, and one of them is "The Skye Boat Song." Historically, it was a lullaby sung to Bonnie Prince Charlie after he was wounded in battle, and he was put into a boat, and he was rowed over to the Isle of Skye. And if you hear this song, you can almost hear the oars dipping in the water.

SAM DINGMAN: Can I ask you about that, that detail that you just shared, which I'm very fascinated by. If, if someone really is at the end of their life, that a person in that moment, it wouldn't be helpful to play something familiar to them, but rather to play something more meditative to help with their transition. What is the reasoning there?

KRAUSS: The reasoning is, music is so interesting. It hits more parts of the brain than speech. And it evokes memories and it evokes imagery, and if it's a familiar song, it will bring somebody back. And if it is completely kind of arrhythmic unfamiliar, it is in harmony with letting go.

DINGMAN: So if somebody is really about to, to pass away, a familiar song wouldn't provide comfort but would actually create a kind of resistance?

KRAUSS: Yes.

DINGMAN: Wow. Your research and your work with folks in hospice is particularly focused. If I'm not mistaken, on veterans. What have you found the particular desires or needs of veterans in those circumstances to be?

KRAUSS: One of the things that happens in hospice, your defenses are down. You're looking over your life and PTSD, if you experienced it before, reemerges. And the other thing that happens at end of life for veterans is something in the literature they call moral injury. You may have done things during your service that were against your core values or seen others do them. And you're coming to the end of your biography and you want to end it well.

There was a case recently where a veteran was talking about things that happened during his service and it wasn't clear whether he was just an observer or he was involved. And he said, "I'm very grumpy. I'm remembering horrible, horrible things." And I asked him if I could play "America the Beautiful." And he said, "oh, please, oh please." And I did. And his dialogue changed, it changed to the band of brothers and sisters who helped each other. It changed to what he was really fighting for.

DINGMAN: Well, it strikes me as we're talking that I'm just going back to what you said about music, striking more parts of the brain than speech. They have had experiences that those of us who are not veterans can't fully comprehend with our rational minds. And so it, it makes a kind of intuitive sense that a language that can access more regions of the brain would be necessary to really channel their experience.

KRAUSS: Yes, I'm gonna go a little psychological on you.

DINGMAN: I'm ready for it.

KRAUSS: There is a nerve called the vagus nerve. It attaches to the inside of the eardrum and it goes, it's called vagus because vagus means wanderer, and it goes everywhere it goes to motor centers, it goes to emotional centers, it goes to the fight or flight or relax centers. It goes, that's why you tap your toe when you hear music because it goes to the motor centers.

DINGMAN: And, and that's why there are certain pieces of music that affect us emotionally in ways we weren't expecting, I'm guessing.

KRAUSS: Yes, absolutely.

DINGMAN: Can I ask you, Bea, do you find that in times in, in your life when you have been dealing with grief or loss or the imminence of something terrifying that you turn to music as a form of comfort?

KRAUSS: Absolutely, I'm a widow myself. And I have to say that friends gave me a certificate for massage and I went to get that massage and I happened to get it from the lady with the largest collection of CDs I've ever seen in my life. And she talked to me a bit about what was going on in my life. And she says with your permission, I will play this and it, it was a song called the "Land o' the Leal."

And it was about a husband knowing that he was going to die and telling his wife, Jean, that she had done her good duty and they would meet again in the land of the Leal. And Leal means that which is true and good and faithful. And she played that thing for me and not only did my muscles relax, but my tear ducts filled up and it was very, very, very healing. It was like my husband saying, you did, you done good, Bea.

DINGMAN: Oh, that's a very beautiful story. Thank you for sharing that.

KJZZ’s The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ’s programming is the audio record.

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Sam Dingman is a reporter and host for KJZZ’s The Show. Prior to KJZZ, Dingman was the creator and host of the acclaimed podcast Family Ghosts.