Song eases pain as the lives of the terminally ill near their end

MIDDLEBURY — They came from all walks of life and from all corners of the county on this clear May day, to strike up a singular voice of compassion for a woman who was drawing her last breaths during the annual season of renewal.
They respectfully gathered around Cynthia Hodgson’s bed, gazed upon her lovingly, and eased into a rendition of the spiritual, “There’s A Light.”
Mrs. Hodgson couldn’t acknowledge those serenading her, and she didn’t have to. As the group watched and sang, her breathing slowed, then stopped completely.
“She just eased on,” said her son, Will Porter, who was among the family members present at her bedside. “It was almost like she relaxed right away.”
Family members are convinced Mrs. Hodgson’s final moments on Earth were made more peaceful by Wellspring, a group of Hospice Volunteer Services singers who offer to serenade those nearing the end of their lives.
For almost four years now, the group has been sharing song as a source of comfort for hospice patients struggling with the pain, fear and anxiety that can come with a terminal illness or advanced age.
Priscilla Baker is Wellspring’s coordinator. She was with the group when it began rehearsing in 2004 and gave its first “patient sing” in 2005.
She noted how Wellspring has grown from a rather casual collection of seven or eight people to an association of almost 30 avid singers devoted to the cause. Practices, conducted the first and third Tuesday of each month, draw upwards of 16 singers.
Since she serves as program director for Volunteer Hospice Services, Baker is able to offer Wellspring’s services to clients who might feel soothed by music.
Some members of Wellspring have sung professionally. Others had never sung in public until they joined the group. They are teachers, administrators, retirees and musicians. None have been “recruited” to Wellspring; they have found out about the group by word-of-mouth, in many cases learning about the service by having had a loved one who had been a hospice client.
“Our only requirement it that they sing from their hearts,” Baker said of her band of angels.
Wellspring has conducted a total of more than 60 sings since it began offering the free service. The volunteer singers have donated a combined total of 457 hours while traveling a total of 1,579 miles to sing to 790 listeners.
Given the fragile health of the people they serve, Wellspring members have to be ready to sing at a moment’s notice. They are all linked by e-mail, through which Baker informs them of the times and locations of their “patients sings.” In some cases, when a person is actively dying, the singers connect quickly by phone.
Baker and three other “sing leaders” try to organize selections that fit the tastes and backgrounds of the people they are serenading. They draw from an extensive song list, ranging from the spiritual (“Amazing Grace”) to the downright playful (“When The Red, Red Robin”).
Patients who are able often sing along to the songs that take them back to their youth, to happier, healthier times in their lives.
Other folks to whom Wellspring sings are in their last moments of life. These are people to whom Wellspring intentionally sings songs that are calming, yet unfamiliar.
“At that point, we don’t sing songs (the patient) would recognize, because in a way, that person is in passage,” Baker said. “That person is really leaving this world … We don’t want to pull him back by singing a song he’s going to recognize, that some part of his brain is going to attach itself to a memory.”
Baker, like her colleagues, derives great personal satisfaction from combining two great human qualities — compassion and musical expression.
“It is a spiritual experience,” Baker said. “We’ve entered a different realm. We are not in this time and place. We’ve entered a space of divinity and sacredness and we’ve touched the divine by singing, coupled by being invited into that space of someone’s dying. The last thing we do in life is we leave — we pass and transform.”
It’s a transition that Porter — a physician and past member of the Hospice Volunteer Services board — wanted to make as smooth and dignified as possible for his mom back in May. When it became clear her health was beyond repair, she requested a transfer from the hospital to her home on May 1.
Porter requested a Wellspring visit for his mom, a longtime devotee of choral music who used to sing to her children when they were young.
Wellspring sang to Mrs. Hodgson on May 1. She was alert enough to acknowledge the singers, who sang some of her favorite lullabies and folk classics, like “Puff the Magic Dragon.”
The group returned during the afternoon of May 6, when it was clear her time was short. The singers provided extra solace for the family when Mrs. Hodgson had passed. Family members and Wellspring even kept singing a short while after she had died.
“We all looked at each other and cried,” said Porter, still emotional about the experience.
“It was transcendent.”
Dick Hodgson, Cynthia’s husband, was also greatly moved by the experience.
“Obviously, it was quite emotional,” Hodgson said. “It was something I was dramatically impressed with.”
Margaret Olson has been a member of Wellspring since its inception. She’d been inspired by stories of a similar singing group, Hallowell, that formed in the Brattleboro area in 2003.
Having sung all her life and having served as a hospice volunteer, Olson believed Wellspring was a natural fit for her.
“It seemed like such a privilege to be with someone at such a profound transitional stage in their life,” Olson said. “It’s kind of hard to describe it in words.”
Caring for people who are dying can truly make one’s own life feel more useful and precious, according to Olson.
“I find all this life meaningful, in terms of how I live my own life,” she said. “It keeps me remembering what’s most important, and I need that.”
Heidi Willis, a retired Salisbury school teacher, joined Wellspring around two years ago. She had recently attended a small-church conference, also attended by members of Hallowell, who told her about Wellspring’s activities.
“It made so much sense,” Willis said of the philosophy of singing to those nearing the end of their lives. “It is also part of taking back the dying process, so that people don’t die somewhere by themselves.
“My philosophy has always been, ‘We do life together; we don’t do life individually.’”
Willis has spent much of her life singing, with choirs and as a soloist. It’s a gift she enjoys sharing with hospice clients. To date she has participated in around 16 sings with Wellspring.
“It’s a priority now,” Willis said. “Last Friday, I was getting ready to leave town. But there was a woman actively dying at Porter (Medical Center). I was able to switch things around so I could sing. It’s part of being a community member; it’s a powerful thing we can do for each other.”
She has seen the power of song lift people’s spirits at just the right time, and calm them down to a point of eternal release.
“It can be a comfort, a communication of love or caring, maybe a feeling that it’s OK to ‘let go,’ that their family is going to be cared for,” Willis said. “Music can kind of express all of those intense feelings that are hard to put into words.”
The singing is its own reward for Willis, who learns volumes about herself, other people and proverbial circle of life every time she sings at a terminally ill person’s bedside.
“It’s kind of a rehearsal for your own death,” Willis said. “We are all going to be coming to that point at some point in time. You get a comfort and a familiarity for when your time comes.”
The sings have provided solace not only to the dying, but to surviving family members, who often sing along. Wellspring members are also there to give them a hug and commiserate.
“For family members, it’s very comforting,” Willis said. “Music expresses something that words can’t. It speaks to a part of us that nothing else speaks to. That’s part of the gift.”
Since some clients have likened Wellspring’s singers to a group of angels, it seems only appropriate that they have a harpist in their midst. Margie Bekoff fills that role quite admirably.
Bekoff, a former immunologist, had become interested in playing the harp for therapeutic purposes in 2004. She had played for her own mother when she died, and felt she could help others in the same way.
“I slipped right in,” said Bekoff, who works part time in the social services division at Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, a Middlebury nursing home.
Biblical references aside, the harp’s association with mortality and the human spirit is no coincidence.
“The harp is a very unique vibrational instrument,” Bekoff said. “When you play a string, a lot of people can feel the resonance.”
Indeed, Bekoff has, at times, matched the tone of the moan of dying patient to great therapeutic effect.
“I have had a number of experiences … where I have played 10 or 15 minutes of playing one string and someone calms down,” Bekoff said. “It’s empirical; you see it work.”
Wellspring’s powers were again at work on Friday at Helen Porter nursing home, where Dorothy Weber, 95, was in need of an emotional pick-me-up. Mrs. Weber has for years been suffering from a memory-loss disease and requires constant care.
While time has robbed Mrs. Weber of most of her strength and many of her memories, she is still a commanding presence as she sits almost regally in a comfy, stuffed chair in the center of her room. The creases in her face and her mane of gray hair belie years of wisdom and experience, an aura reinforced by the black-and-white portrait of herself as a younger woman, prominently displayed on a shelf above her bed.
She smiles at her entertainers as they gather around. Mrs. Weber gazes intently at the singers — and the haze magically lifts. She suddenly latches on to the words of “Que Sera, Sera,” a special twinkle in her eye as she mouths the lyrics “when I was just a little girl…”
Her son, Ken Weber, and his wife, Joanne, sing along, gently rubbing Mrs. Weber’s hand and shoulder.
When the song is over, Mrs. Weber clasps her hands together and sighs euphorically. Large tears are streaming down her face. She looks up, beaming, to reassure those who might misconstrue her emotions.
“They are not sad tears,” she says.
The Wellspring singers perform nine songs for Mrs. Weber, including “When the Saints Come Marching In” and “Amazing Grace.” When it’s over, Wellspring members ask if she’d like another visit in the future.
“I hope you will,” she said, as she bade them goodbye.
Ken Weber is pleased as he watches the effect the songs have on his mother.
“It has been very hard for us to talk about the spiritual side of life with mom, because she panics,” Weber said. “But she can sing openly about ‘the chariot’ coming. I look at her face when she’s singing and I think, ‘My God, there’s no fear at all.’”

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