Singing group a comfort to those in hospice care

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(Host) One of the tenets of the Hospice movement is that there’s always something that can be done to enrich a dying person’s last days of life.

In Brattleboro, the list of Hospice services even includes live music, as VPR’s Susan Keese Reports.

(Sounds of greeting, Laughter)

(Keese) The group outside this house in Brattleboro seems awfully happy, given that they’re visiting a friend with an incurable illness.

But these are the Hallowell Singers of Brattleboro Area Hospice. They’ve sung enough at the bedsides of people who are dying to know that very good things often happen in these hard times.

Today they’re singing for a fellow musician, Gary Rosen. Kathy Leo is the group’s director.

(Leo) “He has ALS , Lou Gehrig’s disease, and we have sung for him a number of times. We’ve been going over and over, bringing him a little joy and spirit.”

(Sound of going up driveway. entering house.)

(Voices) “Hallowell singers are here. Come in, come in! Hi Gary.

(Keese) Rosen is in a wheelchair. He can no longer speak, but his eyes light up as the singers come in. And get down to business.

(Singing) As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way

(Keese) One of the singers, Fred Breunig, has been on the receiving end of this service. The Hallowell Singers started around the death bed of his late wife Dinah.

The couple were in the Guilford church choir, which had a tradition of singing for church members in their last days. Word spread quickly that a sing was being planned for Dinah and a crowd gathered in their bedroom.

Breunig says it was an emotional time.

(Breunig) “But there was also a joyfulness in the room. I mean – music and singing – it’s just indescribable in terms of what it can do for people. And. Dinah sang along, and her beautiful smile blossomed out again and it was just an incredibly moving time.”

(Keese) Kathy Leo happened to be Dinah Breunig’s hospice volunteer. After hearing about the sing, Hospice asked her, Can we offer something like this on a regular basis?

Leo also sang in a chorus in Saxton’s River that eventually joined with members of the Guilford choir to form the Hallowell singers.

Usually Leo calls together a smallish group when Hallowell is asked to sing. She says that every death, like every life, is unique.

She recalls one patient who was taking out his anger about dying on everyone around him. His family asked Hallowell to come but they weren’t sure he’d let the chorus stay.

(Leo) “So we came in and stood quite a ways away from him. And he was really curled up tight, contracted.”

(Keese) After the first song, the man motioned one of the singers to come closer.

(Leo) “And he said, can I get a copy of that?’ (laughs) And with every song we moved closer and he uncurled a little more and something quieted in him with our singing…. It’s a great gift to us every time.”


For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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