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Monitor Board of Contributors: At hospital and Hospice House, music affirms hope, invites peace

A women's choir group called, Song Healers, surround a patient's be to perform at the Hospice House on the Concord Hospital campus operated by the Concord Visiting Nurse Association on Thursday night, November 7, 2013. The group also performs regularly for patients at Concord Hospital.

(JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

A women's choir group called, Song Healers, surround a patient's be to perform at the Hospice House on the Concord Hospital campus operated by the Concord Visiting Nurse Association on Thursday night, November 7, 2013. The group also performs regularly for patients at Concord Hospital. (JOHN TULLY / Monitor staff)

Ubi caritas et amor,

Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est.

Ubi caritas et amor,

Ubi caritas, Deus ibi est.

These are the words to a chant that Songhealers has added to its repertoire. They are Latin for “Where there is compassion and love, God is there.” Songhealers exemplifies this song.

Songhealers is an ad hoc group of Songweavers, the community chorus of about 130 women I direct at the Concord Community Music School. The group grew out of the love of singing and the healing power of song that Songweaver women experience in weekly rehearsals. The mission of Songhealers is to bring healing and affirming music to the patients, family members and staff at Concord Hospital and the Concord Regional Visiting Nurse Association Hospice House. The group sings at each locale once a month. Directing Songweavers for the past two years, I watched Songhealers create a community of dedicated women who share the gift of comforting music. This year, I decided to experience the love myself.

In October I joined Songhealers for the first time, not to direct, but to sing. On a Thursday evening, 15 women met in the lobby of Concord Hospital for a quick half-hour run-through of the songs we would sing: “Give Me Birds at the Dawning,” “Bright Morning Stars,” “A Place Called Home,” “Think of Me” and “I’m Gonna Walk to the Glory of the River.”

The songs vary in rhythm and content, but they all have beautiful melodies, affirm hope and invite peace.

I did not know what to expect. To be honest, I was a little nervous. I didn’t know how patients and families would respond. I didn’t know how I would respond. Hospitals are places of emotional and physical challenges. People are there because something is wrong. Five years ago, I sang in some of these same rooms for my best friend as she died of cancer. What I know is that music, particularly sung music which vibrates the whole body, opens doors for people – doors of emotional, physical and spiritual experiences and doors of viscerally stored memories. I wondered if I would be overwhelmed by my own difficult memories of singing for Laura.

It’s about connection

What I found singing with these joyful women was the slow opening of wonder. We’d stop at a spot in the hallway, stand in a cluster at the convergence of several patient rooms and sing two songs.

At a patient’s request, we sometimes sang three, then moved on down the hall. Nurses came and went. Doors remained open or closed depending on a patient’s need or desire for sound. One man came out of his wife’s room and said, “You ladies are doing a beautiful thing. Your kindness is greatly appreciated.”

This is not entertainment. The focus of Songhealers is to share songs of a healing and spiritual nature – fun, joyful and loving, a lifting of everyone’s spirits, including ours. It is about the connection, spirit to spirit through music.

“Like Songweavers, it’s addictive,” said Gail Laker-Phelps, one of the coordinators. “I can’t imagine my life without Songhealers. We feel uplifted every time, no matter how solemn or sad. Often, patients and family tell us they feel the same.”

Songhealers began as a loving outreach by Carolyn Parrott, the creator of Songweavers; and Lucy Crichton, who sang at the bedside of a dear friend at the Hospice House. After the friend died, the family asked if Crichton and Parrott would sing at her memorial service. Crichton called Chris Richards and some other Songweavers who sang at the service as a way of saying thank you to a friend who died too young.

From that summer of 1996, the women were asked to sing at services, nursing homes, Cancer Survivor Days, the hospital and Hospice House. They decided to focus on healing. Crichton and Richards coordinated Songhealers for many years, then passed the baton to Laker-Phelps, Anne Bonaparte-Krogh and Mary Marsh. The group has often sung for Songweavers and their families when there is a need for healing.

The stories these women tell are heart-warming and powerful – of bringing warmth to a memorial service for a Songweaver’s son who had committed suicide; singing “Silent Night” one night near Christmas at Hospice House and hearing from a grateful family that a woman had died during that song; the surprise of loved ones who were dying and noncommunicative waking up with a smile or even joining in the singing; singing “Don’t Fence Me In” for an older gentleman in Hospice House, who sang along as happy as can be; and singing at the state psychiatric hospital when everyone in the room spontaneously stood up and held hands in a circle, the tangible connection lighting up the room.

Gone on to heaven

Several years ago, Songhealers were singing in the hallway of Concord Hospital when a woman came to her doorway dragging her I.V. She told the group that she had been asleep and awoke to such angelic singing she thought for a moment that she had gone on to heaven!

Before singing in the hallways, Songhealers take a moment to reflect on their purpose, to share the spirit of healing and love through music. At Hospice House last year, the women were invited by a family to sing at the bedside of a woman, who then died while Songhealers were singing. They softly finished their song and left the room. Later, the staff told them that the family wanted to be sure they knew that their loved one’s wish was to die with music. And she had.

“Most often when the singing is over, Songhealers mention how much they have received from sharing the music,” Crichton said. “Our hearts are warmed again and again as we participate briefly in the lives and stories of others. It is truly an open-hearted gift of love.”

Bonaparte-Krogh related her experience singing with Songhealers shortly after her father passed away. She wasn’t sure if she’d be able to sing through the freshness of her grief. She said, “I’ve noticed other Songhealers occasionally choking up when we sing. I think singing with Songhealers helps whether wounds are fresh or old. It puts the illnesses and injuries, the waiting and deaths in our own lives in context . . . and always, song carrying on.”

Moved to tears

I was also moved to tears several times in the hour and a half we sang in the hospital hallways. This touching – person-to-person, spirit-to-spirit, soul-to-soul – with people we didn’t know and will probably never see again, is real connection. We know it in our minds. We feel it in our hearts. In our busy, over-achieving, technology-centric culture, we rush through the days of our lives pretending successful connection is the number of emails in our in-box or the importance of our to-do list or the number of friends we have on Facebook.

Here in the sterile, fluorescent, machine-driven environment of a hospital, I found deep, heart-opening connection – between the singers, in the smile of a thankful nurse, in the excited voices of visiting children with little to do, and with the grateful husband of an ailing wife. Our simple singing gave to those who needed it the vibrations of hope and human connection. As one of our songs reminds us:

Round and round we go,

We hold each other’s hands.

And weave our lives in a circle.

Our love is strong; the dance goes on.

(Peggo Horstmann Hodes of Concord is a singer, performer, voice teacher and conductor.)

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