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Songs for the dying: Bedside choir comforts those nearing the end

The Threshold Singers choir sat at the bedside of a dying patient and sang to him. Pictured, from left to right: Richard Friday, Patty Fraser, and Fran Hunt.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

CONCORD — As the man lies in his bed, the weather outside is grim and gray. A Bible sits on a nearby dresser. His breathing is shallow.

Family photos stare down at him from the wall above and his children hold a dignified and somber vigil, brushing back tears and softly caressing their beloved father’s head.

In the wan morning light, the mood is soft and solemn. And then a small choir — two women and one man at the foot of his bed — begins to sweetly sing.

“So many angels all around me. So many angels, it’s you I see.’’


And then this: “The Lord has promised good to me. His word my hope secures. He will my shield and portion be. As long as life endures.’’

Later, as the final strains of “Amazing Grace” gently fade into a profound and holy silence, choir members accept whisper words of thanks, collect their plastic stools, and leave the family to their final goodbyes.

It is the latest, cherished offering from the Threshold Singers at Indian Hill Music, an unusual choral group based in Littleton, which since its inception 12 years ago has performed at the bedside of the dying hundreds of times now.

Even after all that time, there is nothing rote about it.

“It’s sweet and it’s strong and it’s gentle and it’s not rushed,’’ Steve Lieman told me the other night before the group’s rehearsal in Littleton. “You feel transported. If you close your eyes, you’re transported into a spiritual space with your loved ones. I felt like I was being blessed. That I was being held.

“The music literally puts its arms around you.’’

Sheets of music used by the Threshold Singers choir. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

Lieman has experienced the power of this music from both sides of the bed. Shortly after its inception, he was one of its singers. And later, as his mother and then — just a year ago — his wife lay dying, he absorbed the compassion that accompanies the music.


Founded by a woman named Kate Munger, who was inspired by her experience in 1990 when she cared for a friend in California who lay dying of AIDS, Threshold Choir Singers blossomed across the country and then the world.

There are more than 200 chapters now and Susan Randazzo of Groton, one of the founders of the Indian Hill-based group, who has filled every role from executive director to orchestra member, said a magazine article about Munger sparked a conversation that gave birth to bedside music here 12 years ago.

“I said, ‘We absolutely need to do this,’ ’’ recalled Randazzo, now the group’s senior adviser. “One, because the experience is transformative to everybody in the room. And, number two, it’s a perfect way for us to give back. For families who receive this service no money changes hands.’’

No, the currency here is in the melody, in the lyrics, in the sweet voices that are sharpened twice a month inside Indian Hill Music’s headquarters where on a recent cold night 24 choir members assembled on red upholstered chairs on the blond-wood stage of a recital hall and blended their voices in a symphony of peace and love.

“You absolutely have to be in the moment and there’s a lot going on when you’re in the room,’’ Charlotte Russell, the choir’s director, told me as the choir began to assemble for its rehearsal.


“You’re trying to sing well and provide comfort. But you’re also reading the room. For example, I start to come to the end of the song as the song leader and someone starts crying — a family member starts crying. I don’t want to end the song and leave them exposed that way. So we have these small signals. Sometimes the person in the bed is making eye contact. Sometimes they’re unconscious. We’re not even sure they can hear us, but we always assume that they do.’’

The Threshold Singers choir rehearsed.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

Those voices come from singers from Acton and Groton, from Harvard and Westford, from Littleton and Ayer.

From people like Linda Valentine of Groton, who said she had never heard of the group until six spring seasons ago when her 96-year-old mother was gravely ill and a hospice chaplain made a suggestion.

“Three women were singing for my mother and I saw a transformation take place in my mom,’’ Valentine said. “I saw her visibly relax. Her hand had been so tightly clenched that I thought her fingernails would dig through her palm. And then her hand relaxed. Her breathing became deeper and more regular instead of that shallow panting. They gave my mother a gift.’’

Sophie Wanzer is a 17-year-old senior at the Francis W. Parker Charter Essential School in Devens, who found her way to this stage after her mother suggested that she join her.

“I think people don’t talk about death a lot,’’ Sophie told me during a rehearsal break. “And, especially because I’m in high school, it’s so far away. But I think it’s important to talk about it and to connect with them.


“It feels so worth it and valuable. It does seem important. And when I think about my day-to-day life I think: Am I ever going to regret going or making room for a sing? The answer is never. I never regret going.’’

And then the recital hall falls still and the singers, after a brief silence, come to life.

“May eternal light surround you. Everlasting arms be around you. Know that love has bound you to our hearts. Know that love has bound you to our hearts.’’

Before the group breaks up, they are joined by Renee Anderson, the chaplain of UMass Memorial HealthAlliance in Leominster. She thanks the group for their priceless gift. “You are awesome,’’ she tells them.

Anderson has witnessed the power of this music up close. She’s watched as medical monitors display the relaxation wrought by the music. Anxiety diminishes. Racing hearts relax. Breathing becomes more even.

“The family feels like: I’m not just sitting back and watching them die,’’ Anderson explained. “The family feels like they’re providing this sacred space. The space becomes so filled with music and song. They’re professionally trained so they sit on these little chairs and they don’t talk. You don’t see the singers anymore.’’

But you hear their music. It’s transporting. It’s all around you. It’s inside you.


And it carries with it the ancient comfort of a profound peace.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.