23/09/2014 06:58 BST | Updated 22/11/2014 05:59 GMT

Why I Became a Hospice Music Therapist

It all started with one book. In my second year of graduate school I had to read a self-help book as a part of an assignment for a music therapy class. I didn't even know what a self-help book was, so I typed the word "self-help" on Amazon. Among the dozens of books that came up on search results, the first one on the list was called "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying." The title seemed interesting, unusual, and provocative. After confirming with my professor that this was an acceptable book for the assignment, I ordered it. Little did I know that this single book would determine the course of my career.

It was around the same time I had to apply for a music therapy internship. There were hundreds of internship sites all over the U.S. to choose from; medical hospitals, schools, private agencies, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, psychiatric hospitals, hospices, and so on. Despite this, I had no idea where to apply because I didn't know what population I wanted to work with.

The book arrived in a few days. My intention was to read it as quickly as possible so I could write a summary paper for the assignment. But it was impossible to read it fast, because I was both fascinated and frightened by the subject matter - death and dying.

Even though I had never seen anyone die or even been to a funeral, mortality seemed to be an inevitable part of life that had always been just under the surface. And it was not going away, whether I avoided talking about it or used the words other than "death" to describe it.

Suddenly a strange thought came to me: If I worked at hospice and faced my fear of death, I wouldn't be scared of it any more.

Before I knew it, I was preparing for the application materials to send to a hospice center in North Carolina. In the video message I had to send along with other application materials, I remember telling them that I had no idea how it's like to work at hospice or what I can offer, but that I knew I wanted to learn.

The six months I spent in the mountain of North Carolina were some of the most exhausting, shocking, and valuable times of my life. A patient with Alzheimer's disease showed me that music is a dynamic force through which we can connect with people without words, and that people who are dying have an inner awareness of their own impending deaths. Another patient taught me that hearing is the last sense to go, and that people can hear until the very end. They taught me about working with the dying, the role of music therapy in hospice, grief, terminal illnesses, and death.

This work with the dying also caused me to reevaluate everything: my spirituality, career goals, strengths and weaknesses, even dysfunctional relationships with people in my life. The process of self-reflection was unpleasant and at times painful, but it was necessary to go through it in order to grow as a therapist. By the end of the internship I was certain I wanted to continue doing this work, because there was so much more to learn from it.

That's how my career as a hospice music therapist began almost 12 years ago. Since then, I've learned more about life and death from my patients and their families than any book I could have ever read.

More from Yumiko Sato Music Therapy Blog:

Is it Depressing to Work at Hospice?

Do I Have to be Musical to Benefit from Music Therapy?

"I'm Thankful for My Illness" - Dying With ALS

"Hama be no uta" - Japanese Song about Memory and Reflection