A Place for Grief to Rest

From the Brattleboro Area Hospice 2015 Annual Report

When Hallowell sings in a room where someone is dying, grief is likely to show up.  We have described our singing as “a place for grief to rest.”  But what do we mean by these words?  What does it mean to “give grief a place to rest?”  Grief is not a thing with a shape and form you can hold in your hands or lay down on a bed and cover with a blanket.  It changes shape.  It changes color and strength.  It moves in with certain smells or light, with words or melodies, and fills a room with its presence.  And though it is not a physical thing we can pick up or put down, we all know that we do, somehow, carry it—in our hearts, on our shoulders, in our spirits, throughout our lives. We know “the weight of grief,”  and the heaviness that accompanies it.  We also know the lightness that can follow the expression and release of it.  It is a constant companion beside us as we walk through our life.  No one on this earth does not make its acquaintance at some time. 

When Hallowell enters a home where someone is at the end of their life, we step into the well of a family’s grief.  For the last two years of his life, we visited Greg on Sunday afternoons. We sang with him and around him and for him. And we sang for his family and many caretakers, people who had shown up to learn how to care for him as his disease progressed and he would need more and more help.  His wife Marie was, first of all, his primary caretaker.  She was also the organizer of everything;  family life, her work outside the house and of the helper’s rotating schedules.  She organized household chores, meals, and the children’s social lives.  She held everything together, including herself.  Until we would come to sing.  During those hours of singing, Marie would let herself be still. She would stand behind Greg with her hands on his shoulders, or sit beside him holding a hand, gazing into his soulful eyes, and she would cry, openly and freely.  The tears would start to flow with the first song and they would stop with the last.  Then the warm hostess smile would reappear and she would thank us and see us out.  We grew to expect Marie’s tears,  Even to welcome them.  We understood something about this time.  We understood that our songs were an invitation for feelings to emerge and be welcomed into the loving circle of family and friends.  Emotions became a presence we could wrap in the sounds of our singing, the poetry of words sung, the way we “held a space”through our quiet acceptance and witnessing of this family’s grief.  It was as if our songs helped to speak the truth of what would be a huge hole left in the heart of this family. 

A year after Greg’s death, Marie and I spent some time together.  She told me then that the only time she ever cried over the long journey of years of Greg’s illness, was when the singers would come.  This was when she would allow herself to be fully with her feelings, her exhaustion, her deepest sorrow that her beloved husband with whom she had made a family and shared so much of her life, was no longer physically able.  And of course, that he would die soon, and be gone from her world forever.  Marie thanked us for giving her that place to invite her heart—a much needed place for her to allow herself to fully feel her pain.  Her tears were a release. Our singing offered her grief a “place to rest.” 

And what about our own stories, our personal emotions, the tender places in our own hearts? What do we do, as a visiter, as a bedside singer, when we are standing in a bedroom where someone else’s grandpa is dying? What do we do when we watch the granddaughter take his hand in hers and lift it to her lips while we are singing the words, “no one stands alone,”and suddenly we are back in our minds to the bedside of our own dying father and we see his hand and his eyes and hear his voice and feel that lump that grows in the throat.  We feel the ache in the heart that misses someone we love everyday.  Maybe the song will stop coming out of our mouth.  Maybe we will feel tears slide down the cheek.  Maybe we’ll miss a beat, a note, until we find a way to speak all of our own grief/love into the song so that it finds a place to rest here too. This grief, now, in this room, at this bedside, is not ours.  We are witness to it. We come here to sing in the face of it.  But our own griefs are remembered and they remind us that we are not alone.  And that we all share and all experience this intangible thing we can’t hold onto called grief. It informs our love.  We would not know grief without first knowing love. Doesn’t the heart breaking open teach us how to love better?

Bev laid on the couch across the room, her back to her mother, face turned away from where we stood in a half circle around her dying mother’s bed. We had offered for her to come over and sit beside her mom, but she refused and her body language told us to leave her alone.  There was something here between this mother and daughter that we couldn’t know, nor did we need to.  I positioned myself to be able to see Bev.  We sang our first song. The energy shimmered in the room. The voices were pure and blended.  The song spoke of sorrow and love. Bev sat up and faced us with her head held in her hands in a gesture of surrender.  As the singers eased into the next song, I walked over to Bev and offered her my arm and gently led her over to her mother’s bed.  She climbed in and laid down beside her mother.  She wrapped her arms around her and let herself weep into her shoulder, her hair.  Her mother’s eyes never opened again.  Her chest rose and fell with labored breathing while we sang and sang and Bev held her mother and cried.  Grief had entered this space and offered itself to the heart.

Months later I met Bev on the street in town and she told me that our sing had been an epiphany for her and her mother.  Grief did that.  She allowed it in as the music held a space for it to take shape and make a bridge between her and her mother as she died. 

When grief comes and walks beside you, welcome it. When its weight becomes too heavy to carry, offer your grief a place to rest, and maybe your heart will grow just a little bit lighter and you will remember that the source of your sorrow is the love you have known.