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Hospice Songs for the Soul

I have had the privilege of being a Hospice Singer since the group began, serendipitously, more than nine years ago. We modeled ourselves after the Hallowell Singers, a group of singers associated with a hospice in Vermont.

I would like to share a few words of Kathy Leo, one of the founders of that group:

“Bedside singing calls for the singer to be present, to be intuitive and deeply respectful of another’s process, and to be a quiet witness of death. We are not performing. We do not expect an audience. We see this singing as a service – for the person dying before us, for the families saying good-bye to a loved one, for the caregivers working quietly and constantly in the background, for ourselves and the expansion and evolution of our own spirits and for the culture as a way to begin to shift the lens we view death through.

Our repertoire includes songs from many cultures and traditions. We have songs that address the journey of death and songs that honour the joy of living. We have songs that bring joy and spirit and songs that calm and comfort.”

Each time we sing we experience and learn and grow in this practice. Here is a snapshot of what a sing might sound and look like:

We sang in several different rooms at PRHC – each one a unique and enlightening experience, to say the least. It is often so hard to know how our songs are received when there appears to be no immediate response. And yet… and yet there are nonverbal ways that indicate our songs have found a place to rest with someone when their eyes light up or there is a slight movement of a hand or a foot.

Initially, Laura seemed more interested in getting her bed adjusted than our singing. But when we started to sing, her eyes were completely locked with Cecilia’s and she thanked us at the end, saying our singing was lovely.

Glenn was restless and confused and had his TV on and told us we could sing what we wanted. It was hard to know what songs would reach him. But as we sang, he closed his eyes and the singing seemed to have a calming effect on him.

We visited a room with two Hospice clients. Ruth asked if we knew any spirituals and so we began with “Peace Like A River.” With each verse, Ruth would beam a smile at us, nod and give a thumbs up, responding to the words by saying “so true.” Dale bowed her head as we sang and just listened. They enthused about our harmonies, as did one of the young hospital workers who was bringing up a cart of bedding when we came out into the hall. He was a lover of music in general and loved what he heard.

One of the last rooms we sang in had two young people sitting near the bed of their grandmother who was propped up, but non responsive. As we quietly sang “Angels Hovering Round,” the two young people reached for each other’s hand and leaned into each other for support. At the end, the young man said, “she would have loved that.” We also sang “Edelweiss” and as we hummed our way out into the hall a third grandchild greeted us with a warm, teary smile, cellphone in hand. She had held the phone into the room as we sang so her mother (and the daughter of the patient) could hear us. Apparently “Edelweiss” was a favourite in the family. The young woman said, “I hope my grandma heard it.” I personally believe she did.

If any of you are interested in this practice, I highly recommend reading Kathy Leo’s book, called “On the Breath of Song: the Practice of Beside Singing for the Dying.” There are copies available in the Hospice Peterborough Library. Or call Paula Greenwood at (705) 742-4042 ext. 225 to find out how you might join the Hospice Singers.

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