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We don’t really get death. Nor do we really want to. And the more we see death come for old friends, family, former lovers, the further we want to push it away. But what if we could face our departure with respect, love, and even joy?
In the middle of a simple white room, a petite lady with dark hair and kind eyes gently arranges a chair, humming and smiling as she does. The vibrant rainbow colors of the Ark at Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue shine through the window.
“You can take turns to go in the middle,” Judith says, “or you can leave the chair empty to give healing to someone you know is ill or just needs healing.”
A group of around 14 people have formed in a circle around Judith. They are young and old, men and women, of all faiths. Judith leads the group and invites them to take a deep breath. “It’s okay to be empty of breath, to hold it, and move through it,” she says.
“People say that hearing is the last sense to go before you die.”
Erika Adler, a semiretired psychotherapist with beautiful white hair and a striking jade pendant, moves to the chair. She folds her hands together and nods to the group. Judith places her hands on her heart, and the group sings a deeply moving Nigerian lullaby called “Yono Nikau.” The song translates to “no matter how much I rock you, I can’t get you to sleep.” It has an unworldly, unfamiliar timelessness to it, yet it’s so simple that anyone could pick up its words. The harmonies are sung over and over again like a siren call to the other side, washing over Erika like waves.
►Yo yo yo
Kamo mono yono nikau…
“A lot of people don’t want to talk about death, we don’t want to go there. But it will happen, and it’ll be so much better if we’ve told the people around us what we’d prefer,” says singer-songwriter Judith Silver, founder of Companion Voices. “We want people to know that there is the option of having people come and sing to you when you’re dying.”
Erika isn’t dying. It’s just that most people haven’t been sung to since they were children. When you go to a concert or a choir, you’re part of a shared experience, a performance. And that’s the distinction Companion Voices makes. It’s not a choir. It’s an act of kindness. Judith encourages the group members to practice being sung to, to empathize, to feel, which is why they sit in the middle like Erika. To listen.
“These singing groups are not for performance,” Judith explains. “They’re for well-being, for comfort. We would like to change the end-of-life culture — for it to be known that having singers around your bedside is an option for the end of life. We don’t normally do requests, as sometimes hearing familiar songs could feel like a calling back into this world.”
Jane Dawson, another retired psychotherapist with a soft Mancunian accent, came to the group as someone who loved to sing but “wanted to offer this new form of service.” The group seems to attract people who are open to inner reflection and curious about death, even their own. There were more therapists, but also doulas, midwives, singers, and even a software developer.
Jane once sang to a man who was dying on his own on a suggestion from his nurses. “He had no one,” she whispered. “It made me think about how powerful singing is. I wondered if he felt okay to let go. People say that hearing is the last sense to go before you die. So even if someone is unconscious, they may be hearing you.”
“We don’t normally do requests, as sometimes hearing familiar songs could feel like a calling back into this world.”
Among the songs Judith has chosen for Companion Voices are an ancient Celtic hymn from Wales, an Estonian lullaby, a Seneca round, Icelandic mouth music, and a Jewish/Arabic blessing. They may seem like unfamiliar creatures at first, but somehow they become recognizable. Rooted even.
In December 2017, having done the work for four years, Judith was able to sing at the bedside of her own mother, Anne. “I had this vision of being at her bedside,” she said.
Visibly moved by the memory, Celia Libera, a member of Companion Voices, described the moment: “Her eyes were speaking to me; there was a stillness. The entire group was singing to her, and I found myself overcome with emotion. In the learning groups, there is rarely a session where we don’t get emotional.”
And that’s what these singers do. They create an experience of joy when there is an anticipation that it’s supposed to be painful. “Mum was lifted. In life, adults rarely get sung to. When we sing, it’s just for you,” says Judith.