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The Water is Wide: A Bedside Singers Story

By: Judy Foster, Hospice Peterborough Volunteer and Bedside Singer

Today three of us sang on the [Peterborough Regional Health Centre Palliative Care] unit.

We were welcomed into a number of rooms and sang in one of the halls. There was a couple who were celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary with friends scattered around the room. The patient’s husband shared with us that music has been a big part of their life – they used to go to all the Peterborough Pop Ensemble sings. Then we were asked to sing Christmas carols to a woman in the next room. Her son was standing in the hall across from her room – the door was closed with a sign saying “no visitors.” We were invited in and sang her favorite Go Tell it On the Mountain and then we sang Silent Night!

We sang to a man and his two visitors. As we were leaving he asked me if I knew his mother, he gave me her name, and said she had been very musical, played guitar, and had died a year ago at the hospital. Another man and his visitor kept thanking us; I noticed his feet were moving to the beat and he even joined in singing on a couple of the songs. We sang to two women in the same room, to whom we had sung to before; they said they enjoyed our singing very much.

For me the most touching moment was when we sang in a room to a husband and wife. While we were singing The Water is Wide the husband moved his chair closer to the bed so he could hold his wife’s hand. She was 97 and he was 90 – with teary eyes he thanked us for our songs.

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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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Sacred Time and the Gift of Singing

By: Meredith Hill, Hospice Peterborough Volunteer

The Borland family lives across the road and we’ve only known them in a way that’s slightly more than acquaintances. However, in the last four years we have watched as Margaret, the matriarch in her eighties, struggled with and succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Though her children and their families had moved into the house for support, even their whole tribe was no longer able to provide for her and keep her safe and the decision was made for her to go to Fairhaven for care.

I was surprised when her husband, Wimpy, came to me, weeping that this had been the worst day of his life. After that opening, there were several conversations with different family members as they struggled with her decline and when she was transferred to hospital and then the palliative ward. The vigil began and we observed the gathering of the clan and the all night and all day comings and goings.

When we received the call that Margaret had died, I crossed the street and was welcomed into one of those sacred places where people were open in their mourning and storytelling …and I was privileged to just be there with them. One of the stories they told was the visit of the Bedside Singers. They knew of the connection I have with Hospice and asked me to tell everyone there how wonderful their visit had been.

The Borland’s have been key members of Saint James United Church since they were married there 65 years ago. Christian hymns are their language of sacred time. Margaret was no longer speaking when the Singers came to the ward that evening but as they sang, her family watched in awe as she began to mouth the words along with them. And that fully churched family joined in the singing in what became for them a tremendously meaningful time.

By the next day, as Margaret was clearly weaker, the fully gathered family went back to that experience with the Singers and began themselves to sing the hymns and songs that were part of their lifeblood. They’re not entirely sure at what point in the singing Margaret actually breathed her last breath, but they know that their gift of presence and music were important parts of her good death. They wanted Hospice to know the gift of those singers being there had meant so much to Margaret, who could not say thank you. The whole family very warmly extends their thanks.