Comfort and joy

The fine art of dying: Local therapist Emily Keebler uses the healing power of music to help people navigate their final chapter of their lives. photo by Bill Rhodes

The healing power of music can bring comfort and joy to patients living out their final days, notes Emily Keebler, co-founder of the music-therapy program at Four Seasons. People told they have six months or less to live often experience intense anxiety, as well as emotional and spiritual distress, she explains, and the Flat Rock-based nonprofit’s mellifluous treatment program has been remarkably effective at calming and improving patients’ lives.

Keebler's sessions sometimes have the feel of a one-woman live performance. Armed with a guitar, a song book and her lilting alto, Keebler cheers up patients by playing their favorite songs. The most common requests, she says, are "Amazing Grace" and "Over the Rainbow"; gospel music is also particularly popular.

"I do a lot of sort of spiritual work with people," the certified music therapist explains. "Our whole thing is, You've been given this amount of time: How can we make the best of it? How can we support you having the best quality of life you can?"

Often, the songs spur vivid memories and conversations about a patient’s key experiences. In their last days, says Keebler, "People have a high need for life review — going over what their life has been like and what they've done; re-examining the whole thing. Music is processed in the brain in the same areas as memory. Haven't you heard a song and it brought you back to a certain time in your life? Music can really get people talking."

The magic works even with patients suffering from severe dementia and unable to talk, she reveals. "Music just gets in there; it's amazing. A lot of times it helps them calm down. Often, this is one of the only ways they can communicate with the world … hearing what somebody else is doing, and responding."

Keebler remembers one advanced Alzheimer's patient “who couldn't make any sense when he spoke. … But if I would play those old standards, he could sing every word. He could sing so beautifully."

No sad songs

Four Seasons specializes in hospice and palliative care, and Keebler often encourages higher-functioning patients to try their hand at songwriting. She recalls a patient whose body was devastated by Parkinson's disease but whose mind was still sharp.

"He wanted to write a song for his family. The chorus was kind of his philosophy on life, something like, ‘Happy is the way I tend to feel; it's a crazy feeling when you care about someone else. That's why I sing about being married and having kids,’” she explains. "We made a recording of it, us singing together, and gave copies to his family. They were beside themselves with it."

Keebler also sometimes works with bereaved family members.

Deeply saddened by the approaching one-year anniversary of her mom's passing, a high-school student came to Keebler seeking help. Over the course of several sessions, the therapist says, "She wrote this amazing song" about her mom and a visit to her grave. "I didn't really have to do much other than empower her. I asked her what the melody would be and it would just come out," Keebler recalls. "Afterward, she said writing the song helped her know that she's going to be OK … that she'll always love her mom."

Naturally, not every patient has such a profound experience with music therapy. Some simply don't respond; others may have fears about it. "Sometimes people will come in and be like, 'No sad songs,'" Keebler reveals, adding, "We're not going to do anything they don't want to do. … They're the ones guiding the session."

She adds: "Hospice is all about what they want. It's not about trying to get them to go anywhere they don't want to go. It's all about being present with people."

In other words, tuning in.

— To learn more about Four Seasons’ music-therapy program, go to or call 692-6178.  Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.