A Place For Grief To Rest

Resting PlaceFrom the Brattleboro Area Hospice 2015 Annual Report

When Hallowell sings in a room where someone is dying, grief is likely to show up.  We have described our singing as “a place for grief to rest.”  But what do we mean by these words?  What does it mean to “give grief a place to rest?”  Grief is not a thing with a shape and form you can hold in your hands or lay down on a bed and cover with a blanket.  It changes shape.  It changes color and strength.  It moves in with certain smells or light, with words or melodies, and fills a room with its presence.  And though it is not a physical thing we can pick up or put down, we all know that we do, somehow, carry it—in our hearts, on our shoulders, in our spirits, throughout our lives. We know “the weight of grief,”  and the heaviness that accompanies it.  We also know the lightness that can follow the expression and release of it.  It is a constant companion beside us as we walk through our life.  No one on this earth does not make its acquaintance at some time. 

When The Words Won't Come

Bleeding HeartFrom the Brattleboro Area Hospice 2014 Annual Report 

When I visit my mom, now in her 80's, and it's time to say good-bye after a short visit that felt too long, bags all packed, bedding washed and put away, we say our ritual good-byes.  We hug and kiss and say our thank you for this and that and then suddenly, in our moment of leaving, it seems the entire time of our visit takes a whole shape.  No matter what we did, said or didn't say, the time we spent becomes sacred because it's over.  Saying goodbye fills itself with emotion and questions.  When will we see each other again?  And the unspoken question---the one we all think but don't say as her health continues to decline--will we see each other again.  She walks to the door with us and stands watching and waving as we drive away.  She has always done this---walking as far as she can, holding us with her eyes until we are out of sight.  Who knows how long afterward she stands looking into the empty space where we just were. 

I have done this with my own children when they come in and out of my life.  Saying goodbye never fails to bring a lump to my throat that holds back the swell of tears that want to come so that what I might want to say remains unspoken.  It does get said though, just not in words;  when I follow them out to their car or walk to the end of the driveway waving watching the car disappear down the dirt road.  Standing in the silence and watching the dust settle.  

We say things in so many ways.  

Teaching and Learning

 Hallowell's Ten Year Anniversary (2013)

A decade after we gathered around Dinah's bed in the Breunig's cozy Putney house and sang for her during the last days of her life, a decade after Noree Ennis; the then-patient care coordinator asked if we might sing this way for others, a decade after we said Yes with all of our collective hearts to this practice that awaited our voices and our spirits, Hallowell's voice is as strong as ever. We continue to sing for hospice patients throughout the community, visiting people in their homes, in their hospital rooms, in their clean quiet rooms in the area's nursing homes. We are recognized in these places. We are called for by Brattleboro Area Hospice (Ryan and Cheryl never fail to mention our services to new clients) and directly from families or hospital and nursing home staff. The first Thursday of every month, in several small groups, we make repeat visits to families in the early stages of hospice care. In between these planned sings, we are always on-call and available to organize a sing on short notice. What we have learned these past ten years is that no two sings are the same. That we can not, ever, know what to expect when we start to sing.

With Compassion in the Heart of our Song

Some Hallowell Stories (2012)

She crossed the street to reach me on the sidewalk in Brattleboro one spring day.  Winter had receded. Brattleboro was humming with life the way it does on a day like this. She looked familiar but I couldn't place her at first. Not until she introduced herself as Erica and reminded me that we had sung for her sister Carol twice before she died peacefully at home in her small cozy cabin behind the old farmhouse. It was in the heart of winter, I remembered. Our first visit was a sing on the small entry porch outside the cabin. The family was not quite sure they wanted the singers to be part of this death. They were closely tending their sister Carol and her young daughter, making choices that  honored who she was and how she lived. Four of us sang on the porch, the front window cracked open just enough to let our sounds flow into Carol where she was bundled in comforters, a sister or two on either side of her. We buttoned up our down jackets and pulled our wool hats tightly over our ears as the bitter cold winter blew around us, lifting the pages of our music. We put our heads together and sang, hoping our songs would reach the hearts of this lovely family. We did not expect to be called back. The need for family privacy was clear to us. When the call came late one evening about a week later, we dropped everything and returned to the small cabin in the dark. This time we were welcomed in. We slipped quietly inside, stood in deep respect and comfort around Carol where she seemed quiet and deep, unresponsive to those around her,  in her own private peaceful place. Her breath was even and slow  She rested in a recliner, wrapped in a colorful quilt. We sang quietly and softly, songs to make a little bridge to help carry her over to the other side. Her sisters sat shoulder to shoulder on the couch. The light was dim and soft. Her mother slipped in and out of the room as if the music invited her gently into the space where her daughter was dying. The room was crowded with family and friends but in a quiet way. Through our songs, we were able to say, "We see you. We honor your life, and your journey towards death. We feel the love of this family. We are grateful to be here, witness to this miracle." 

Planting the Seeds of Hallowell's Songs

From  the Brattleboro Area Hospice 2011 Annual Report

On the first Thursday of each month, throughout Brattleboro and the surrounding areas, you are likely to see small groups of Hallowell singers meeting, gathering and preparing to go out to visit hospice clients and their families in their homes or hospital rooms or nursing home rooms.  They are exchanging information, piling into one or two cars and setting out.  Ryan and I have been busy during the days leading up to this, contacting clients,  making connections and organizing groups of singers to go out and sing for people who are unable to get out or just need some spirit through song brought into their home.  These sings are mostly what we call "social sings,"  though in the true spirit of Hallowell, we honestly never know what we will experience.  We are planting our own seeds.  Preparing the family through our light-hearted sings, for the deeper roots of what our practice has become over these eight years of serving the community.  

Hallowell--Spreading the Word Through Song

Brattleboro Area Hospice Annual Report  2007

We always start with the same song.  How Could Anyone Ever Tell You you are anything less than beautiful, how could anyone ever tell you, you are less than whole. How could anyone fail to notice that your loving is a miracle, how deeply you’re connected to my soul.  We look into people’s eyes when we sing.  We feel the power of the words as people in the workshop take them in.  Across from me a woman is weeping openly, quietly.  To my left an older woman has her hand on her heart.  A gray haired man has a light in his eyes. Later he shares the story of his wife's death and how she responded to the singing of Somewhere Over the Rainbow at her bedside and how after she died, a double rainbow spread itself across the sky.  

Hallowell - Bedside Singing as a Practice

From an update which appeared in the 2009 Brattleboro Area Hospice Annual Report         

After six years, Hallowell continues to serve the community by offering bedside sings for the dying.  We consider these sings to be the heart or core of what has become known to us as our “practice.”  Every time we are invited to sing for a hospice patient, to connect with the grieving family, to witness love and grief, joy and pain in the same space, we are the ones who feel anointed or blessed by the invitation. 

For us as bedside singers, the practice is showing up, entering each situation with beginner’s mind, and being fully present with what is before us.  In this way, we sing over and around and with the dying with confidence and guidance, with grace and curiosity and always with reverence and respect for the mystery of the dying process.   Those dying before us have been our teachers.  We remain humble in our practice and grateful to this community and Brattleboro Hospice for supporting it. 

Grace, Growth and Gratitude

September, 2006

When we welcome life’s passages, birth and death, into our daily lives, when we are not so distant and removed from these powerful times of transition between worlds, we become more comfortable around them and then of course, more amazed and graced by our living. I believe it is this grace that accounts for the dedication and spirit the Hallowell singers bring to their volunteer work through hospice. Each time I send out a request for singers, either for a small group for a bedside sing or for a larger group for a community event, the Hallowell singers keep showing up. And they show up with their hearts open, ready to embrace life and death each time we are welcomed into the sacred space of dying. This is a low commitment group, I tell them when they first go through their singer/hospice orientation. Yet, during these past three and a half years, I have never had a problem finding singers. And it seems we always have a lovely blend of voices as well as the perfect soulful energy needed for each different situation we find ourselves in. How does one express gratitude for something like this? And for a community that has welcomed us in ways we could not have imagined when we first tentatively began to offer our singing as another way to bring comfort to the bedsides of the dying.

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Brattleboro Area Hospice
191 Canal Street
Brattleboro, Vermont 05301,  indicating Hallowell in the Memo.