For the thirty years after my father passed, I had talked to myself and others about wanting to work as a hospice volunteer in some capacity. When my mother passed a few years ago, the urge to work with hospice patients was reawakened once again. I knew I had some skills I could lend to an organization by offering administrative support, but I really wanted to do something that would allow me to engage more directly with patients and their families. As a singer/guitarist, I thought that perhaps in some way, I might be able to use my musical knowledge as well. I wasn’t sure how that would all play out, but I had sung for relatives and friends that were terminally ill, so it seemed like something that would be easy to present as a possibility.
In May of 2019, I found myself at a workshop in Rowe, Massachusetts that was titled “On the Breath of Song”, Singing at the Bedside of the Dying. The woman who was leading the workshop, had started an a capella hospice choir based in Brattleboro, Vermont. It began with the intention of bringing music to a friend who was dying. This friend had requested to hear all the music that she had been singing with her choir members over the years.
Now, when I first saw this workshop in the Rowe Conference Center catalog, I was immediately struck by the realization that there was actually a practice called hospice singing. I thought to myself, “what is this all about? What kind of music is sung?” Well, I had to find out. It was calling me, and despite a few obstacles that I imagined were in my way, I managed to get myself there with very little trouble.
From the beginning of the weekend, I knew this experience was going to be special, and that my life would be transformed in an instrumental way. The workshop was run by a woman named Kathy Leo, and she was accompanied by two of the music directors that worked with her and the Hallowell choir. In all, there were five members that shared their talents, their love of music, and their willingness to begin a practice that would hopefully comfort those that were soon to leave this earth.
We listened to stories of how they touched the lives of hospice patients and the families that surrounded them, some people who were dying with no one near at all, and every situation in between. Compassion and a belief that music can soothe the spirit of each individual was the driving force of this remarkable group. Their mission via these workshops, was to spread the word that this was a loving, positive gift that singers could offer to those who were soon to pass.
On the way home with the two new friends I had traveled there with, we discussed so much of what we had learned, and all three of us were convinced that the work of hospice singing needed to continue through our own efforts. As we parted ways at the end of this most remarkable weekend, we agreed to be in touch once we were able to find a concrete way to move forward.
I was blessed with the friendship of Charlyn Bethell, who shared with me that she had been wanting to start a hospice choir herself, but hadn’t gotten to it as yet. We met and talked over ideas that we had about starting a hospice choir, and Charlyn offered to be the musical director. I contacted my two new workshop friends from Cambridge, and the rest was history.
The first four of us met to set up a weekly practice date, and also decide when and how we would offer our services. As time went on, we added four more members, set up a website, and had business cards printed. I began reaching out to as many hospice organizations that I could find, to see who might wish to have us share this practice with their clients. Although there were a few organizations that were immediately welcoming, we decided to begin with two places in particular. One is the Elizabeth Evart de Rham house, which is a small six bed facility in Cambridge. The other is a much larger, 19 bed building in Lincoln, affiliated with Care Dimensions. Care Dimensions required us to go through all the necessary volunteer protocol in order to start our work. That meant TB tests, a CORI check, and an abbreviated training program. Once that was all completed, we were able to enter as their honorary hospice choir. Now, finally, we were ready to open our hearts and our voices to the souls that were experiencing the final journey in this life. As time went on, we sang for friends and many patients in the hospice houses we were connected to.
What is it like, and how does it feel, this blessed gift we have been allowed to share? Well, to begin with, all of the hospice singers have considered it an honor to sing at this most sacred of times in a person’s life. We usually go quietly into a room, humming softly, sing a few songs and then leave as unobtrusively as possible, humming as we exit. We have compiled sacred songs, many of which were learned during the workshop that a few of us attended. Others have been suggested from our own church hymnals. We also do lighter material, such as rounds, or familiar folk tunes. If the patient is more alert, there are sometimes brief words exchanged. We have even noticed people becoming more engaged as we go from one song to another. There is nothing more moving for us than to see a gentle clap or smile as we complete our musical connection. Although our practice is designed specifically for those in hospice, the number of times we might sing for someone can vary. We might visit a person who is alert and engaged the first time, and see her at the edge of passing during another visit. When we sing for someone who is within a few hours or days of dying, it is called a vigil sing. This, to me, is the most sacred of all our experiences.
Always, our focus and musical energy is directed at the person who is dying. We welcome friends and family to share these moments with their loved one, and we are also in tune with the people that we are singing with, but our main objective is to offer comfort to the soul who is preparing to move on.
Each sing has a leader who guides the group through this sacred process. As an example, I would like to read another excerpt from Kathy Leo’s book:
Choosing songs requires stillness of mind and heart and listening from the core of one’s being. The leader is in a state of alertness and awareness. She is reading the room. She is the only one choosing songs. She is watching for responses, subtle or obvious, from the dying person, the family, the singers. She is listening from the far-reaching corners of her consciousness, from her inner ear. She is wide open, receptive, kind and compassionate. This is the practice, the art of bedside singing. Each person in the room practices this every time they are present. Sometimes, silence is necessary in order to make a space for this kind of listening. The singers practice being comfortable with silence, with not needing to fill it, but to patiently wait within the walls of silence. The next song will find us if we give it time and trust.
During the pandemic, our choir has been unable to offer our services. Such an ironic sadness, when there are so many people who likely would have benefited from the music that we could have shared. Hopefully, soon, we will be given a sign that it is safe for all concerned to sing for those who need a gentle moment of song. To all those who have lost someone during this period and could not even be with your loved ones, please know that our spirits are always singing for you and them.