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From left, JourneySongs singers Roberta Rosenberg, Chris Kyle, Lorel Zar-Kessler, and Jan Surrey recently performed at Adelaide of Newton Centre. The hospice choir sings at the assisted living facility every month. (Courtesy photo)

JourneySongs Hospice Choir 15 years of bringing comfort through music

Published in Fig City News by JULIE M. COHEN ON JANUARY 13, 2024

“Twilight and evening bell, / And after that the dark! / And may there be no sadness of farewell, / When I embark,” are just some of the moving lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem, “Crossing the Bar.” Later set to music, the song is one of many soothing and meaningful works that a local hospice choir has been performing for the past decade and a half.

     Newton’s JourneySongs, an interfaith musical group, is marking its 15th anniversary of bringing comfort to the terminally ill — and paying tribute to the dead at memorial services and funerals — through song.

     “It’s an honor to be at somebody’s bedside” and sing for them, said Kate Mason, a former hospice nurse who co-founded the choir with Cindy Mapes and Nancy Wrenn.

     The a cappella ensemble rehearses at the First Unitarian Universalist Society in Newton (FUUSN), where it is based, and performs “lullabies, chants, rounds, spirituals, hymns, niguns [religious Jewish melodies], and classical music. We choose songs meaningful to the client and their caregivers,” according to its website.

     Mapes first came up with the idea to form a hospice choir after her own family’s experience. Before her father died in 2005, he was in hospice care where a minister would sing hymns to him. Her dad was also a minister and loved to sing.

“It was a feeling of connecting through music,” she recalled. Touched by the care her father received, Mapes knew, “I want to give back to hospice.”

     After learning about the Hallowell Singers, a self-described, “chorus of volunteer singers trained to practice the therapeutic art of singing for the dying,” the three JourneySongs founders attended a workshop given by the Vermont group.

     Forming the choir took more than just finding singers and a place to rehearse. Members also had to learn how to best comfort those in hospice care and “try to sing with compassion,” said Mapes.

The Visiting Nurses Association (VNA) offered training and workshops on hospice care, the signs of dying, and how to be present without “trying to fix anything and [instead,] seeing what was needed in the moment,” said Mapes.

     Unlike almost all other performances, JourneySongs members learned they might be asked to stop and leave at any time. Part of singing for the terminally ill means that you must have “sensitivity to the unknown,” said Mason. “It’s tricky to be invited to people’s bedsides.”

     Sometimes it’s also tricky not to be upset by a client’s medical reality.

     Roberta Rosenberg, a current member of the group, said some people have asked her, “Why would you expose yourself to the emotional trauma” of singing for someone who’s dying? In turn, she has responded, “But it’s not trauma … it’s a gift.”

     Like Mapes, Rosenberg and her family were deeply touched by the kindness of her father’s hospice care providers. A fan of singing all her life, she felt that JourneySongs was a natural fit – especially after she saw Mason, her father’s hospice nurse, at the rehearsal.

     “I felt immediately at home,” said Rosenberg.

     “I thought about my dad a lot those first few months” with the ensemble, she recalled. Her father “would have loved this music while he was in hospice. …. I was sort of singing for my dad.”

Over the years, she admits “there were times that I got choked up when I was singing.”

     The experience of performing for the terminally ill has also given comfort to the singers.

     “Learning and experiencing more about death and dying is a gift also,” said Rosenberg. “It has removed the fear and dread about dying.”

     Performing with the group of 19 has “changed me” as a person, said Rosenberg. “I can be present for people in a time in their lives when I used to be uncomfortable …. I’m not anymore because of my experience with JourneySongs.”


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