I have been singing with Threshold Choir for more than three years, and have been singing at the bedsides of the dying for about two. Much of my singing is at nursing homes and falls into the category of “visiting the shut-in,” but two recent bedsides have been an important learning experience for me.
The first time I sang at the bedside of Bruce, he was at home, surrounded by his beloved miniature longhair dachshunds and his wife. He did not interact with us, and others from our choir sang at his home in the following weeks. Then he was transferred to ICU for breathing problems. He had been sick for a long time, and I was part of the team that sang for him while he was on breathing support. Breathing support was removed the next day and we sang for him two more times. His room was always filled with friends and someone was always holding his hand. We had been instructed to sing upbeat, gospel-style songs. His wife told us that she had told Bruce that it was okay for him to go, but his vitals had not changed much from when he was on breathing support. He did not interact with us during any of these visits.
On the fourth sing, Bruce’s wife was holding his hand and the mood in the room had changed from the upbeat vibe the day before to something more somber. Our song mother sensed the change and did not sing the gospel songs, instead singing the end-of-life songs that are our true mission. As we sang, the steadfast courage the wife had been displaying slipped away and she began to quietly sob, her tears falling on Bruce’s hand. We continued to sing with lumps in our throats and tears in our eyes until she regained her composure. Bruce passed away that night.
Last Friday, I sang at the bedside of an eight-year-old girl. She was at home with her mother who proudly showed us a video of her daughter singing. It clearly showed that this little girl had been “medically fragile” since birth. The mother expertly infused fluids into the girl’s IV. The girl was on the couch in the living room and was on breathing support, too. We were visited by her older brother, for whom we sang Hollow Bamboo, and her baby sister, in diapers and still nursing. The mother was trying to be brave, but when the other two children were cleared from the room and she was there with us and holding the hand of her dying daughter, she began to weep during “Guide Me Through The Darkness.” We kept singing softly until she regained her composure. Eva died that night.
Both Bruce and Eva were deeply loved by their families, and yet I could see how holding on to what must be released is the source of so much suffering. The people who were on the Threshold seemed to need to be released by those whose prayers held them back. When the bereaved person truly let them go, the communication seemed to flow through holding the hand of the loved one on her tearful face.
We sang at the end of Bruce’s funeral — the gospel song.