A couple of weeks ago, as 85-year-old Jo Pendleton of Belfast was dying, her family opened their home to some very special visitors: the volunteer community chorus HeartSong.
HeartSong’s mission is to share songs of comfort and peace to the infirm and ill, the dying and their families and caregivers.
On that afternoon, six members quietly filed into the light-filled living room and gathered around Jo, who lay back on her couch. The living room was where Jo had once spent many hours watching birds as her husband of 65 years, Skip Pendleton, read in his chair next to her.
But Skip had died of cancer in September and their children sensed that Jo was ready to join him.
Illness had left their mom unable to communicate well, but she was alert as the singers came in. The musicians, some of whom knew the Pendletons well, lifted their voices in gentle songs that would have meaning for Jo and her family. They sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Amazing Grace,” and other pieces that seemed to fill the room with peace as well as music.
“She perked right up,” her daughter, Denise Pendleton, remembered. “We knew she always loved music and singing. She was always singing to us.”
After the singers finished, they shared hugs with the family and filed back out. But they left something precious behind, Denise and her sister, Bindy Pendleton, said.
“Having HeartSong come helped bring in the spiritual and sacred elements through music,” Denise said.
“I think of it as healing,” her sister added.
The sisters believe the music helped their mom let go. Indeed, less than two hours later, she had gone.
Jo died at home, surrounded by children and grandchildren, who worked to fill her last day with love, poetry, candlelight, recorded music and reflections of her life. But Bindy and Denise Pendleton believe there was something particularly important about the visit from HeartSong, which also had sung for Skip Pendleton shortly before his own death.
“I think the music does lift you into a more spiritual realm and did help them be more at peace with the journey they were on,” Denise said.
And it wasn’t just their parents who felt that peace.
“I think it was a huge gift to us and to them,” Denise said. “They come in and they created a sacred space. It’s their service. It’s coming from their hearts.”
The music wasn’t like a performance, Bindy said. They didn’t want applause or payment.
“They’re singing because they like to sing and they believe in singing and the gift of music,” she said.
That’s exactly right, according to Mariah Williams, the musical director of HeartSong. She was one of the Hospice Volunteers of Waldo County who founded the singing group more than a decade ago after attending a hospice training in Waterville that featured a similar choral group from Vermont.
“They were talking about their mission,” she said. “We looked around the room at each other and said, ‘yeah, we’ve got to do this.’”
Right now, HeartSong has about 18 members who range in age from their 20s to their 80s. They meet every week in Belfast to rehearse and have standing singing gigs at Waldo County General Hospital and four area nursing homes, as well as singing at the request of people like the Pendletons. They have even sung for three of their own members who have died over the years, and it can get emotional, she said.
“Fortunately, we don’t get emotional at the same time in the music,” Williams said. “Oftentimes, when we’re singing for people that we may know a little bit and who are close to death, it’s not a sad thing. It’s like being at a birth. It’s really amazing.”
The feeling they get upon entering the room of someone who is sick or dying does vary. Sometimes there’s a feeling like great peace and acceptance, she said, but not always.
“Sometimes when we go in the room, there’s not that. We sense that the person may be anxious, perhaps, about dying,” Williams said. “The more we can communicate a sense of calm and peace, the more they tend to relax.”
HeartSong does that in different ways. When people are close to death, they often sing songs that are not familiar to them, such as lullabies from other cultures and in other languages. If people are agitated, they will slow down the music and take pauses.
“They don’t know what we’re singing and they hear it as a wash of harmonies,” she said.
But they do have some more familiar songs in their roster, among them old hymns such as “Abide With Me” and “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” They sing spirituals and some popular tunes such as “Over The Rainbow.” They sing classical pieces and some short works from the Taize Community in France, songs that she classifies as being between chanting and musical meditation.
They practice carefully so that they blend well together and sing in tune.
“If we have those skills we can fully be present and sing with our hearts,” she said.
By doing that, they can bring succor to the sick and dying. And themselves, too, she said.
“It’s a spiritual experience,” Williams said. “It’s being in the presence of a major transition in one’s life, and it’s also the beauty of the music.”
There are other vocal groups in Maine that sing to the infirm and the dying, among them Evensong in Blue Hill, the Tourmaline Singers in Waterville, Solace in Rockland and Harbour Singers of Saco. Flic Shooter, the director of the Hospice Volunteers of Waldo County, said that singing at the end of life is an important way to bring communities together.
“The power of music is wonderfully healing,” Shooter said. “I’ve seen families soothed and comforted just by their presence and their attention to sacredness. It’s a kind of universal language, sacred music.”
That was the experience of the Pendleton family. At the end, there wasn’t much they could do for or offer their parents other than read to them or play music for them. Having HeartSong come in and share their songs helped ease the final transition.
“It acknowledges that this is the time you want to do something special for the people you love, and you want to mark the passage they’re making,” Denise Pendleton said. “I can’t imagine a nicer gift.”
HeartSong will sing for the public at the Hospice Volunteers of Waldo County Remembrance Service, held at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 10 in the basement classroom of Waldo County General Hospital.
Follow the Bangor Daily News on Facebook for the latest Maine news.