The two women quietly enter the hospital room. They pause. The man, holding a yellow begonia, standing next to the dying woman nods his head in acknowledgement.
“Would you like us to sing to your mother?” they softly ask.
He replies in a soft whisper that he was about to leave.
The women invite him to stay. He moves to the head of the bed and the women begin to sing All Through the Night.
As the women sing, the woman lying in the bed passes away.
“He was really grateful that he stayed because he was there when his mother died,” says singer Mariana Chapman, a member of the Victoria Hospice Bedside Singers.
Three evenings a week the sound of voices can be heard coming from patient’s rooms at Victoria Hospice.
The voices belong to the Victoria Hospice Beside Singers, a group that helps comfort the dying by singing in a cappella (voices unaccompanied by instruments) and always in teams of only two singers. The core repertoire includes songs of comfort and general blessing, as well as popular songs from popular culture.
The group began in 2007 when a Hospice volunteer noticed that by humming and singing around patients, they seemed to be comforted.
Today, the group consists of 13 volunteers and more are needed.
Chapman, Suellen Guenther and Kathie Doerksen have been with the group the longest.
“What we do in bedside singing is we’re very respectful of the patient,” Guenther says.
“We would not sing songs or hymns with religious language unless we get an indication from the patient or the family that’s their tradition. We just offer comforting words.”
Hospice staff will usually refer a patient and oftentimes family members. A singer will then meet with the patient to see if they are interested.
Some people are interested right away, others take a little convincing, and often it’s a flat no, Doerksen says.
“If they say no, we thank them for that too. No is also a right answer,” says Chapman.
The singers can sing one to a handful of songs, it depends on how long the patient wants them there.
“Sometimes patients are too exhausted and it’s overwhelming for them to choose a song,” Doerksen says.
“We just ask them if they want a lullaby-kind of song or an upbeat song and we’ll choose one to fit.”
Training to become a Bedside singer is about a six-month process with singers required to take Hospice volunteer training followed by music work.
The group wants singers who can stay on key, generally sing in a warm lullaby tone, and be able to smoothly blend their voice with one other singer. It is not necessary to have any professional vocal training. The ability to read music is not a requirement. New singers are mentored by experienced Bedside Singers during the regular Victoria Hospice schedule.
Members of Beside Singers are required to attend Wednesday evening practices.
Doerksen, Guenther and Chapman say there is nothing like Hospice.
“I never leave here without feeling so grateful and uplifted. It’s just so supportive and calm,” Doerksen says.
Adds Guenther: “It’s the times when it’s profound that keeps us coming back. Every now and then there is something really touching and you realize, ‘wow we made a difference for that person.’”
Can you sing a tune or two? Bedside Singers could be for you
Interested in becoming a member of the Victoria Hospice Bedside Singers?
Victoria Hospice is hosting two information sessions on March 25 and April 22, from 7 to 8 p.m. at Begbie Hall, 2101 Richmond St. No registration is required.
Training begins in mid-September.
All Bedside Singers must attend the Victoria Hospice volunteer training course before they can sing in the patient unit. They are also required to undergo a criminal record check and willing to get a flu shot.
“Volunteer training is another form of training,” says Kay Larsen, manager of volunteer services for Victoria Hospice.
“If you’re squeamish through the training and feel uncomfortable about dying then clearly this isn’t going to be the place for you.”
For more information on the program, please call 250-370-8727 or go online to victoriahospice.org.