When the Words Won’t Come

From the Brattleboro Area Hospice 2014 Annual Report 

When I visit my mom, now in her 80’s, and it’s time to say good-bye after a short visit that felt too long, bags all packed, bedding washed and put away, we say our ritual good-byes.  We hug and kiss and say our thank you for this and that and then suddenly, in our moment of leaving, it seems the entire time of our visit takes a whole shape.  No matter what we did, said or didn’t say, the time we spent becomes sacred because it’s over.  Saying goodbye fills itself with emotion and questions.  When will we see each other again?  And the unspoken question—the one we all think but don’t say as her health continues to decline–will we see each other again.  She walks to the door with us and stands watching and waving as we drive away.  She has always done this—walking as far as she can, holding us with her eyes until we are out of sight.  Who knows how long afterward she stands looking into the empty space where we just were. 

I have done this with my own children when they come in and out of my life.  Saying goodbye never fails to bring a lump to my throat that holds back the swell of tears that want to come so that what I might want to say remains unspoken.  It does get said though, just not in words;  when I follow them out to their car or walk to the end of the driveway waving watching the car disappear down the dirt road.  Standing in the silence and watching the dust settle.  

We say things in so many ways.  

When a loved one is dying, and the final goodbye is hovering in the air, on the breath, poised in the heart, on the tongue,  sometimes the words get caught.  Sounds won’t seem to shape themselves into words.  Or the just right words,  the ones to express the fullness of feeling, are simply not available.  Sometimes something else wants to be said,  a thought, a memory, an intention, the feeling of loss of despair of grief of love.  When the spoken word get caught on the tongue and can’t find its way to language, there are other ways to say these things.  A hand held.  Lips on skin.  Touch on the top of the head.  Gestures.  A tender way of looking.  Thoughts unspoken.  A small vase of flowers.  A moistening of dry lips.  A song.  A circle of strangers with kind hearts circled around the bed singing.  The songs saying those things that are so hard to speak.  The songs softening the air, clearing a space for a different kind of language to be spoken. 

When Hallowell is invited to sing at the bedside of a dying person, we do our very best to arrive with clear minds and hearts, in a state of readiness to be present and to listen deeply for what we might offer through our music as a way to say what could be so difficult to speak in words.  We have been asked, upon arrival, to help the dying one “let go” through the songs we choose.  We feel our way around the room with our eyes and our open senses.  We wait for guidance to come.  We “read” the space,  the emotion, the relationships, the level of grief, the love.  Most of all the love.  Over and over we say “I love you,”  “I will miss you,”  “I want to help you to die.”  We say it through the words of songs we choose;  “How deeply I’m connected to your soul.”   We say “I’m here” by singing, “I my loving vigil keeping.”  We say,  you are not alone,  “friends carry me over, Love call me home.”  We give hope in song when we sing “There’ll be no sorrow there.” 

We can almost feel the way we are speaking for and to the family around the bedside.  The way we did that time we sang for Evelyn—young wife of Dan, a circle of friends around her bed.  Her clear eyes were open with wonder and curiosity and full of love as we sang and she looked openly into Dan’s eyes.  It was almost as if she were the one singing the songs to him, though she was the one dying.  She told him not to be afraid.  Not to be sad.  “There is a land, high on a hill, where I am going, there is a voice that calls to me.”   And around them the circle of friends, through tears and heart, said, we have come here to support you when we sa ng,  “life offers a chance for friends to carry us over.” 

There are clear messages we can “speak” through the lyrics of songs we choose.  Sometimes, we choose songs in other languages or we simply hum around the bed.  This is another way of speaking.  Of softening the air and quieting the breath.  It is another way to say what words can’t.  A feeling.  An emotion carried through sound.  An offering of a place to rest for both the person on their journey and those who can only go as far as the door or the end of the driveway waving.  

What a gift we have been given in Hallowell.  The gift of sound and song and spirit.  The gift of presence and witnessing.  The gift of being able to translate or speak for others when language is so far from the mouth because there is a swell of emotion in the way of it.  The songs flow around the bed, around the room, an offering of a different way to speak what wants to spoken, without fear, without roadblocks or history in its way.  We say it with honesty and intention.  We sing to what we see,  what we feel.  

Sometimes we want to say, “You are not alone.”  Like the time we sang for the man with no visitors, dying in a local nursing home in a small dark room.  He was in a deep place by the time we visited him.  Unresponsive.  Breathing shallow rattling breaths, just hours away from his last one.  We entered the room in silence and kneeled close around his bed.  I told him he would hear some singing and that he should rest in the sounds, that he could stay where he was or go even further away, deeper.  We hummed our way gently into the song to ease him into our sounds.  We entered the song in words about a boat floating across the sea, a watery sound in the Croatian language.  He seemed to settle his dying body more deeply into the bed, and then to our surprise, he opened and lifted his arms and placed his hands behind his head, in a gesture you might do when you are entirely relaxed on your back lying on a beach in the warm sun.  As if to say,  yes I AM in a peaceful place.  I am floating away on that boat.  I am not alone here.

When the words won’t come, maybe the songs will say what wants to be spoken.  The sounds or the poetry of music can speak volumes.  Can speak directly to the soul leaving or the ones staying.  Can speak for the one leaving or the ones saying goodbye.  And maybe after our visit, when our songs are still lingering in the ear and the heart,  in the air in the room,  maybe then, when the family looks into the space we had just filled, with their hearts a bit more broken open, maybe that’s when the tongue will find the words to speak what is still left unsaid.