With Compassion in the Heart of Our Song

Some Hallowell Stories (2012)

She crossed the street to reach me on the sidewalk in Brattleboro one spring day.  Winter had receded. Brattleboro was humming with life the way it does on a day like this. She looked familiar but I couldn’t place her at first. Not until she introduced herself as Erica and reminded me that we had sung for her sister Carol twice before she died peacefully at home in her small cozy cabin behind the old farmhouse. It was in the heart of winter, I remembered. Our first visit was a sing on the small entry porch outside the cabin. The family was not quite sure they wanted the singers to be part of this death. They were closely tending their sister Carol and her young daughter, making choices that  honored who she was and how she lived. Four of us sang on the porch, the front window cracked open just enough to let our sounds flow into Carol where she was bundled in comforters, a sister or two on either side of her. We buttoned up our down jackets and pulled our wool hats tightly over our ears as the bitter cold winter blew around us, lifting the pages of our music. We put our heads together and sang, hoping our songs would reach the hearts of this lovely family. We did not expect to be called back. The need for family privacy was clear to us. When the call came late one evening about a week later, we dropped everything and returned to the small cabin in the dark. This time we were welcomed in. We slipped quietly inside, stood in deep respect and comfort around Carol where she seemed quiet and deep, unresponsive to those around her,  in her own private peaceful place. Her breath was even and slow  She rested in a recliner, wrapped in a colorful quilt. We sang quietly and softly, songs to make a little bridge to help carry her over to the other side. Her sisters sat shoulder to shoulder on the couch. The light was dim and soft. Her mother slipped in and out of the room as if the music invited her gently into the space where her daughter was dying. The room was crowded with family and friends but in a quiet way. Through our songs, we were able to say, “We see you. We honor your life, and your journey towards death. We feel the love of this family. We are grateful to be here, witness to this miracle.” 

Erica told me this, on the sidewalk that spring day, months after her sister’s death.  She told me that the family couldn’t decide about having the singers visit. They were reluctant to invite anyone into this space who might look upon their sister’s dying with pity. They did not want this journey to be seen as tragic. They wanted it to be a time of grace and beauty. An honoring of Carol’s life and spirit. And, she said, that is exactly what we felt from each of you as you sang around her and for all of us. You simply showed us compassion. You helped us feel the grace of our sister’s dying. She filled up with tears. So did I. We shared a moment of great tenderness, again.  

Hallowell continues to learn, stretch and grow as we are welcomed and embraced by our community. There are too many stories to choose from, stories of family after family who have welcomed us into their private and intimate lives during a time of loss and grief.  We are learning compassion. And how to communicate compassion through our presence and through our songs. I recently decided I wanted to look more closely at the word Compassion and what it means to each of us. What does it evoke to think deeply about compassion as part of our practice, as part of our daily lives. In recent workshops and during our rehearsal time, I invited people to consider what it means to be compassionate, and then to write down just a few words to describe their thoughts. We then filled a basket with these words, passed it around and read each other’s words, anonymously. It became a circle poem,  with compassion at the heart of it. I want compassion to be at the heart of everything we say, do and choose. And sing of course. Here are some of the writings:

deep sensitivity to the needs of others
listening with your whole being
not judging, not trying to fix
just being there
caring and being with others wherever and whoever they are
being One in silence
being deeply with someone
the absence of “I”
seeing essence
acceptance and pure love
quiet presence
understanding that surpasses understanding
sharing passion, feeling, love, emotion
when one heart is willing to melt into another
compassion is the heart

There is only compassion when we are fully present at a bedside. We stand in witness, trying to say through music what we feel. Through the sounds, the words we choose to sing, the feelings the music evokes, we offer compassion.  

Bridget was the matriarch of her Irish family. She was beloved and well known, a small but strong, fierce and funny, wonderful spirited woman in our community.  When her granddaughter Darry called me to bring a group of singers to her bedside in the hospital, I was more than grateful to do so. What I didn’t know was that we were to receive, once again, that wonderful gift of witnessing the flow of love and connection of an extended family. And that it would open our hearts and teach us again what it means to feel deep compassion, without trying to change or “fix” what we are privileged to witness and be a small part of for a little while.

Bridget was tiny in her hospital bed, wearing an oxygen mask over her mouth and nose though she still struggled to fill her fluid filled lungs with breath. When we arrived, we found the family scattered around the halls and cafes of the hospital.  The sing brought them all together around Bridget’s bed. She was completely surrounded by her family, adult children and grown grandchildren and their partners. We stood apart, well aware of our role as simply singers. This was our time to fill the room with songs that would hopefully say some of what the family wanted to say. All we had to to was to watch closely, to feel, to listen with our hearts and then sing to that. Bridget’s daughter Oona asked us if we could sing something that would help her to “let go.” We sang, Love Call me Home, Sing to Me of Heaven, I Will Guide Thee. Songs in English. Songs the family could hear the message of. Bridget’s eyes were wide open, shining even. Bright with love and sparkle. Though we told her she might want to sleep while we sang. Rest in our sounds. But her spirit was lighting up the room. She was not going to miss a minute of this. She was wide awake. And she was fully with each member of her beloved family as they took turns laying with her, breaking down. Openly crying. A great flood of release happened as we sang with our hearts open. We were feeling open and compassionate and grateful for what we were invited to witness. There often comes a moment during a sing when we can feel the saturation point of grief. It might be time for one more song and then time to take our leave. We had reached that point at Bridget’s bedside. The family needed a rest, but they were not ready to let us go. Instead, Oona asked for a more uplifting song. We sang Parting Glass,  a melodic Irish tune that speaks from the perspective of the one leaving the world, saying “goodnight and joy be with you all”  to his or her beloveds. It turned out to be the perfect song. If Bridget’s eyes could have grown even brighter, they did. After that, I Still Have Joy fell from our lips and then a quiet hymn to leave everyone breathing softly, All Through the Night.   

Bridget’s family understood that the sing was a gathering of family, a time for their grief to rise up and find expression, a time for love and connection to flow between all of them. Oona later told me that she felt the sing was the true funeral/memorial service for the family. It was a way to help the family say goodbye to Bridget. And granddaughter Darry wrote me this very loving note the day after our sing:

Dear Kathy (and the singers!),

Shortly after your sing by her bedside, Bridget slipped into a state of unconsciousness. She is still there, but it won’t be long until she finally passes.

We are so grateful that her final moments of awareness were filled with so much beauty. I believe that she was guided to the other side on the wings of your music. I doubt you were looking at this particular moment, but when you began the Irish tune my aunt requested, Bridget’s face lit up and she smiled a very happy, very peaceful smile. It was amazing – like seeing her in her girlhood in Ireland.

I’m sure you’ve heard all of this before, but the sing was so cathartic for all of us, and I’m sure that facilitated Bridget’s letting go. I remember when you were starting up the group, and I thought then that it was an amazing and powerful concept, but I could not have imagined the beauty and power until I experienced it myself.

My family cannot stop talking about the sing. Please tell all the singers that they make the most beautiful music and their work is so sorely needed and so hugely appreciated.


Hallowell is grateful to each and every family we are privileged to sing for. Those who die before us, who invite us to their bedside, teach us to live with compassion in our hearts. May we all know the meaning of compassion in our own lives and allow it to shape everything we do, say, think and sing.