Songs of farewell

In her new book, Hallowell Singers founder Kathy Leo tells how music comforts the dying, and offers lessons for the living

By Richard Henke

BRATTLEBORO—Kathy Leo, the founder and director of Hallowell Singers, last month published On the Breath of Song: the Practice of Bedside Singing for the Dying, a book that offers guidance and insight into the practice of singing for the dying and their families.

Through the telling of true stories and over a decade of experience in song and spirit with the Hallowell hospice choir, Leo has written a guidebook for anyone offering end of life care or helping a loved one die.

“After many years of teaching workshops to newly forming or active hospice choirs, the decision to write a guidebook through personal experiences of being with the dying became clear,” writes Leo at the Hallowell website,

On the Breath of Song is a way to get close to the bedside to explore your personal relationship with death and dying. It serves hospice singers, music therapists, chaplains, compassionate caregivers, hospice workers, and palliative care professionals.”

Birthing and dying

Although Leo has now been working with hospice care for over 15 years, she was a midwife in the Southern Vermont area for more than a decade before that. She didn’t find the change too great.

“You are in the same space: birthing and dying have similar energies,” she explains.

Shortly after Leo began her volunteer work for Brattleboro Area Hospice, musician Peter Amidon and others were invited to the bedside of a Putney woman under her hospice care to sing for two nights.

Leo writes about the experience: “In a small house on a back road in southern Vermont, a woman is dying at home surrounded by her loving family. It is a winter evening in 2003, a few days before Dinah’s last, a group of friends from the community and her church, gather around her bed to sing. She joins in. She mouths the words when her voice fails her …

“As we sing around her, Dinah is held up by her loving husband Fred, a daughter on either side of her. [Hallowell Singers] formed after two visits to Dinah Breunig’s bedside in her home, her family welcoming and present, during the final days of her life on earth.”

Hallowell is a chorus of volunteer singers trained to practice the therapeutic art of singing for the dying. Based in Brattleboro, the chorus serves hospice clients through its affiliation with Brattleboro Area Hospice and the greater community by request.

Leo, who had been Dinah’s hospice volunteer, answered the call from Noree Ennis, the patient care Coordinator of Brattleboro Area Hospice at the time, to create and organize a “hospice choir” that would be available as a service to anyone who desired singing at the end of life as an offering of comfort.

Peter Amidon and Mary Cay Brass agreed to serve as musical directors.

‘Gifts of grace’

Almost 40 singers signed up to be trained and taught how to sing at the bedside of a dying person. Usually 4 to 6 singers go to the home of a man or woman in hospice care.

“We do not want to overwhelm the space,” Leo says. “We know how to make ourselves small in energy. Before we enter a home, we quiet ourselves internally, which can take a lot of work initially. Once there, we offer songs that are gifts of grace for everyone involved, the dying, their family and the singers.

“Beautiful things happen with music. Singing also creates a special space for a family to come closer with the dying. So much happens in this space that is rich with life, death, and mostly love.”

Leo explains that Hallowell doesn’t call these events performances, but rather, “sings.”

“We tell people not to applaud, that is not what we are here for,” she says.

The name for the Hallowell Singers comes from a song Brattleboro therapist Stephen Spitzer wrote about a friend from Hallowell, Maine, who died from a bee sting. “What he wrote so embodies the spirit of our mission that we took it as our title,” Leo says.

Since its inception in 2003, Hallowell has served hundreds of families in the Southern Vermont community.

“Little did we know at the time that as Hallowell grew and evolved, it would become a central ’practice’ in our lives, a way to learn how to live fully and with deep gratitude,” Leo writes. “Our songs and our quiet presence bring comfort and offer support to the dying. The response of those we sing for is often emotional and calming.”

Hallowell still works very closely with Brattleboro Area Hospice. “They are more like family, really, and they helped to shape and form us through support and training,” Leo confesses.

But Hallowell also has its own hospice training.

A careful approach

Leo felt the need to address specific issues that arise when singing at dying persons’ bedsides. Hallowell trainings deal with how to prepare for a sing, both individually and as a group, how to involve the family, and how to approach what Leo calls “the sacred space of dying.”

“We need to learn to enter and leave the space seamlessly,” she says.

Soon enough, the word about the special work that the Hallowell Singers were doing began to spread.

“We were asked if we could do a workshop on how to start a choir in Middlebury,” Leo says. Soon more groups were forming choirs that asked for Hallowell’s help.

“We have also helped to launch a still growing number of hospice choirs throughout the New England region and across the country by teaching workshops, offering guidance and counsel, and being available for continued support for developing hospice choirs,” Leo writes. “We are honored to be a strong model for the growing movement of the practice of bedside singing for the dying.”

Besides the numerous smaller workshops, for the past six years, Leo and Amidon have given a weekend “deepening workshop” once a year at the Rowe Center in Massachusetts.

“These are always well-attended, and people come from all over the country, even someone from New Zealand who wanted to start a Hallowell choir there,” Leo elaborates. “This movement, which began in Putney, now is spreading all over the world. Who can explain it? Perhaps it was just the right time, but it is pretty amazing.”

True stories of tenderness

Leo has often been exhorted to write a book offering guidance and insight into the practice of singing for the dying and their families.

“I first was asked to write up a guidebook years ago, but I kept telling everyone and myself, ‘It wasn’t the right time, it wasn’t time, it wasn’t time,’” she says.

But finally Leo realized that she had no real excuse for delay, and the result was On the Breath of Song.

Although the book is intended to help others working with hospice choirs, this is definitely not a book a rules. Instead, Leo says she has written a book of true stories filled with tenderness and emotion.

“Singing for the dying is intuitive, where strict rules have no place,” Leo says. “Consequently, when I came to write down all that I have learned over the years working with Hallowell, I realized that the best manner was through stories which inform the teaching. At the heart of these stories are the songs we sing, and the spirit of love we bring to this practice.”

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