The members of Boise Hospice Singers consider it a rare privilege to be with someone who is dying, to sing to them in their last days or hours. To help make their transition, from one world to the next, joyous or gentle — or at least full of song.
Sometimes the Hospice Singers will perform concerts in retirement homes or private homes, but they also do “quick response” sings, for people who don’t have time to spare. One of Barbara Kenny’s special memories is singing for a woman in the hospital. Four singers went, arranged in a matter of hours, and sang four or five songs.
Barbara: “The daughter told us her mother had been very agitated all day. ... She never opened her eyes — that was fine; but ... as soon as we started singing ... the daughter felt her mom relax and become calm. ...
“She passed away the next day.”
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Boise Hospice Singers began in 2009, with a core of three singers. Now numbering more than two dozen, their purpose is “to bring the joy and comfort of music to people in hospice care, as well as their families, friends and caregivers.”
Karen Kelley: “My own mother died in hospice care. I was able to be with her, and the last thing I did for her was sing a song. She passed shortly thereafter and I hold on to that in my own life.
“I am so lucky — I am so honored — to be able to do that for people at the end of their lives.”
Singers recount times when their music calmed anxious patients, when people who couldn’t talk would recognize songs, when still patients would wave their arms and withdrawn patients would sing and smile.
Karen Kelley: “I think music at the end of life is a gift for everyone in the room. ... Whether you hear the words or the notes, you feel the emotion.”
Officially volunteers with St. Luke’s Hospice, vetted and background checked like all hospital volunteers, the singers are men and women; retired and employed; professional musicians or not — but passionate singers, all of them.
Nancy Doherty Oppenheimer grew up in an Irish family, and she has fond childhood memories of funerals — because there was always singing.
“In hospice, there’s one song that we sing called ‘Angel Band.’ It talks about the angels singing and bringing you into heaven — that type of thing. I always just think of growing up and having a joyful sendoff to whoever just died.”
That’s what the Hospice Singers hope. It’s a non-denominational group and is not affiliated with any one denomination (and, in fact, their repertoire spans irreverent to reverent, military to spiritual to religious — the song list chosen carefully for each person or situation). But one thing is clear: The time around death is very sacred.
Shira Kronenberg: “I believe there is a transition between life and death that sort of borders on holiness; of the ethereal thing that we all know exists but can’t quite put our finger on.
“And so when we go into the presence of someone who is about to cross over, or who is suffering ... I think it’s like dancing on the head of a pin. You find a moment of excruciating beauty. And faith, that it will be OK, at whatever stage it is (in).
“Music does that a lot.”
She thumbs through her songbook looking for the hymn “I’ll Fly Away.” The first line goes, “One glad morning when my life is over.”
“Who wants to talk about when their life is over? And yet, there’s this whole amazing song about it that kind of makes it less intimidating to acknowledge: Yes, my life is about over.”
And music so helps at those difficult times — those times when words fail.
Jon Martin: “When my mother died … we began singing and we kept singing hymns, just singing our response and how we felt.
“I just find that singing and music gives us a way to respond when we run out of words; when we don’t know what to do. It bridges people’s isolation in ways that are unique and meaningful and deep — both for the patient and family, as well as ourselves.”
Susan Gelletly, one of the original founders, is keenly aware that people in hospice care have experienced a great deal of grieving. Not only for their future and their illness or physical decline, but possibly loneliness as family members and friends fall away.
“Other people (sometimes) vanish because the idea of a serious terminal illness is scary and they just don’t know how to be. ...
“(Hospice Singers) is a way of being the incoming tide — to bring attention and comfort and, hopefully, some pleasure into a situation where there’s been a lot of loss.”
Susan laughs out loud as she remembers singing for a 104-year-old woman who was on hospice care. And then she got better. She’d go back on hospice care — and get better again. The Hospice Singers have sung to her for seven or eight years now; the most recent time was for her birthday party, and the staff had balloons and cake and a piano, because she is a musician.
“When we came in, she was playing this and that (on the piano), very happily — she’s almost blind. People leaned over and said, ‘We’re here for your birthday.’ And she said, ‘Oh!’ and just started playing ‘Happy birthday.’
“Other songs we would sing, she would just find them on the keyboard and play along with us, right in tune. ...
“(In hospice), people usually are not expected to live. But, you know, we love proving these predictions wrong.”
Recently, the Hospice Singers put on a little concert at Brookdale, an assisted living community on ParkCenter Boulevard. As evidence of the lure of music, residents began gathering as soon as the choir started warming up on scales and chords.
The choir launched into their first song, “Don’t Fence Me in.” Fingers tapped the arms of wheelchairs, and toes gently bobbed; heads nodded in time to the beat.
Resident Sharon Bedard: “Music just makes us feel good. (We) come down here, listen to them sing — and sometimes we join in. ...
“I’m not a good singer; I can’t carry a tune. But I can sure say the words if I know them.”
During the break and after the concert, singers make a point of mingling with residents, shaking hands, swapping stories, greeting each other.
Maud Bolstad: “We see all these happy faces. ... This is what we’re all about.”
Susan Gelletly: “We will basically bring music to people where they’re living. ... Anybody who enjoys music and can’t get out and about and find concerts or festivals — we’ll come to them.
“All we need is an invitation.”
Get involved: Boise Hospice Singers
For more information or to invite them to sing for someone in hospice care, contact Boise Hospice Singers, 208-870-7604 or BoiseHospiceSingers@gmail.com.
If you would like to contribute goods, services or time, or if you’d like to become a singer yourself, use the same contact information.
Monetary contributions are managed by St. Luke’s Health Foundation at 208-381-2123 or stlukesonline.org.