When Hilda Walsh of Douro, Ontario died at the age of 101 three years ago, she left behind a legacy — a gift that would grow in the heart of her grand-daughter, Sarah McInnis, leading her to ease the pain and grief of others.
It was the gift of music and it created a bond between them, which still inspires and encourages Sarah today. It has guided her to a career in Music Therapy, and recently inspired her to start The Legacy Song Project as a way of witnessing, preserving and honouring the memories of loved ones through music.
Sarah writes and records personalized songs about those who have passed on, or about someone who may be nearing death, and both are beautiful in different ways, she said in an interview with JOURNEY Magazine Ptbo.
She gathers information during a one-hour conversation (in-person or on zoom) about “what has been important
to them, who they are as a person, their joys and regrets — letting them tell their story”.
Those stories become the foundation for the song that is created.
“It gives them an outlet in their own words,” said Sarah. “The song becomes their legacy and the family has it for years to come to look back on. They feel free to talk about their loved one and keep their stories alive after they’ve gone, which is at the heart of the Legacy Song Project.”
Sarah now lives and works in Port Williams, Nova Scotia, but grew up in Douro and attended Peterborough schools and Trent University. She serves clients in the Annapolis Valley and across Canada, and, as far as she knows, she is the only one doing something like the Legacy Song Project in the country.
There is an expectation in our modern lives that one is expected to experience grief and then quickly “get over it”, she said. “But grief is a life-long process. You’ll never be the same and you’ll never stop learning from that experience. It will never stop impacting you. Even five years after the death, people want to talk about their loved ones, but others don’t ask, don’t say their name.”
But the preservation of their voice and stories can bring
a tremendous amount of comfort to their family and friends following their death, or the song can act as
their personal anthem while they are still alive, says her website, Blue Cedar Music Therapy.
“It starts out like a musical jigsaw puzzle,” Sarah continued. “But once the pieces are all fit together, it’s a stunning legacy of love and life from the dying and the dead.”
“I enjoy it,” Sarah. “I haven’t been excited like this in a long time. It’s very aligned with how I want to be spending my time making my livelihood.”
Though music has been central to Sarah’s life since the age of four, she discovered music therapy as a profession during the years her grandmother was in the hospital and later at nursing homes in Norwood and Lakefield, Ontario. Sarah learned to play the fiddle at age 25 when she discovered that Hilda, nearly 100 at the time, had “always wanted one of the grandkids to learn”, says the website.
Hilda Mary Walsh taught school in Douro and farmed on County Road 4 with and her husband, Jim Walsh, raising two daughters, Mary and Catherine. Sarah is the daughter of Catherine and Tom McInnis of Douro.
Sarah would often take the family fiddle to play for her grandmother and other residents in her nursing home unit before her death.
“Music is a beautiful kind of expression, and it had a huge impact on my grand-mother. She is the reason I decided to study music therapy. I saw how much music affected her, and how it brought her and the others into the present and gave them memories. It was really impactful.“
She said she also realised more support is needed for people at the end of life, and said she always had the intention to work in palliative care with music therapy. Last year Sarah achieved certification as an End-of-Life Doula through Douglas College, and has participated actively in grief literacy training through Toronto’s “Being Here, Human”.
Sarah said she started writing songs in her mid-teens and it has “always been a big part of who I am”. When she graduated from Trent U. with a degree in International Development, “I realised this is something I loved – performing and sharing music,” she said.
She produced an EP around that time, which included several songs that are actually legacy songs – musical love letters to aging or passed members of her family such as “Farmer, Coalminer”, written about her two grandfathers. She’s also written about an uncle and grand-mother, and even her great-great-great-grandfather, who was a sailor.
For the bereaved family, Sarah has a few questions she asks about the deceased during the project interview, such as:
- What do you think they valued most in life?
- What was a part of them that now lives on in you?
- If they were here now, what would they tell you?
- If they were here now, what would you tell them?
And for the person who is dying:
- What has brought you the greatest sense of meaning and purpose in your life?
- Why does it matter that you were alive?
- If you could give only one sentence of advice to those younger than you on finding a happy and meaningful life, what one sentence would you pass on?
Sarah recently wrote a song for Meg, a client in British Columbia, called “Who We’ll Be” about her dad who died when Meg was 13.
“When I was in my early twenties I went through a phase where instead of feeling sad on the anniversary of my dad’s death I felt really, really angry,” says Meg on Sarah’s website. “Every year that passed fewer people remembered, fewer people reached out to me, and I felt so angry that he was being forgotten. When I heard Who We’ll Be for the first time, I couldn’t believe how beautifully she captured who my dad was and the golden childhood he created for us.Sarah writing this song just feels like the most beautiful way of making his memory unforgettable. I just love it.”
Back in Nova Scotia, another client, Hedda, writes about how Sarah connected with her mother, and the resulting song “Yarn and A Mourning Dove“.
“We left them alone to chat for an hour and my mother was moved by the experience of being able to
share some aspects of her life, very aware of the fact that she was near the end of her life and grateful for the opportunity to reflect with Sarah,” she says.
When the song was finished and friends and family gathered to listen, it was “a precious moment” as they shed tears of joy and sorrow.
“Suddenly we could take a step back and look at this tapestry with wonder. Sarah’s song was an incredible gift at
an important time and I was able to share it with family and friends near and far.”
Sarah McInnis obtained a Bachelor of Music Therapy (BMT) in 2019 and completed a 1,000 hour internship at the Kings Regional Rehabilitation Centre in Waterville, Nova Scotia in July 2020, and successfully completed her Certification Board for Music Therapists exam. She is trained in guitar, violin/fiddle, piano, and voice,. She opened Blue Cedar Music Therapy in June, 2020. Apart from music therapy, Sarah is also an accomplished songwriter, recording and performing her original material in the Annapolis Valley. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Development Studies from Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario. For information and pricing, contact Sarah at bluecedarmusictherapy.ca/
By Melodie McCullough