Solace: 'sacred space' for the dying
Rockland — “Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar
When I put out to sea ...”
The a cappella choir begins to sing “Crossing the Bar,” a musical setting of the Alfred, Lord Tennyson poem of the same title. When the singers stop after the first verse to assess their progress, someone explains that ports are often protected by a sandbar which, when the tide is out, causes a rumbling or moaning sound as the water goes over it. If there is “no moaning of the bar,” the tide is full and ships can sail easily out into the open ocean. Thus, the poet wishes for an easy passage when he dies.
The choir is Solace, a group of around 20 women and men who sing almost exclusively to those who are dying. It was formed in 2010 as an offshoot of HeartSong, a similar choir based in Belfast. Two of HeartSong's members did a continuing education presentation for Coastal Family Hospice Volunteers in Rockland, and one of the volunteers who attended was Rob Gabe. He was inspired to start a choir in Knox County and joined HeartSong to learn how, he said.
Gabe worked with Nancy Button and Kay Allan, who had done the presentation, to get the new group started, and they ended up joining Solace when it began. The two groups enjoy a friendly relationship, he said. Solace rehearses the first and third Thursday of each month at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Rockland.
There is no formal program for recruiting new members, Gabe said: “People just sort of show up.” He, Allan and Button share responsibility for interviewing prospective singers.
Allan, of Thomaston, is also one of the group's three song leaders, along with Will Moss of Rockland and Charlie Grey of Belfast (also a member of HeartSong), which means they start the group off with a pitch and keep time. Usually, at least one of them will be on hand for a sing — the group prefers that term for what it does, rather than “performance.”
One of Solace’s members is the intake person, gathering information about the person who has requested a sing, such as his or her faith, the style and energy level of music that might be most suitable, how near to death the individual is. Then the intake person sends an email to Solace members to let them know of the request and to gather a group for the sing. Solace sings all over Knox County and beyond.
If none of the song leaders is available, the group can sing without a leader, said member Merrilee Brown, who has sung with Solace since its beginning.
“These songs are in our hearts, they're in our souls, they're in our bodies,” she said.
Sometimes, the dying person will sing along or the family will join in. One man loved to sing traditional songs such as “She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain” and “Oh! Susanna!” with his son. So the choir sang them to him, and he joined in; Gabe remembered that they were gathered around the man's dining room table singing to him. When they finished the last song, “I could see he was just transported,” Gabe said.
Sings often include laughter as well as tears, he said. “We sing some pretty upbeat stuff.”
Solace's repertoire is wide ranging and includes lullabies, folk songs, traditional hymns and more. The singers will try to accommodate requests to the extent that they can find a score for the desired piece.
With different music, different singers and a varying number of singers for each sing — four is the minimum number — “each experience really is very, very different,” Brown said. The listeners also vary, from just the dying person to a large extended family. And of course, the setting is also new each time. Sings can take place in a home, a hospital room or a nursing home, and when Pen Bay Medical Center's Sussman House hospice opens, Solace expects to sing there as well.
“We just work with what we've got. It's not about having a wonderful performance space, it's about singing to the person where they are,” Gabe said. He added, “I think the music makes a sacred space.”
Sometimes Solace sings to family members of the dying person, too. At one sing where there were many extended family members, the wife of the dying man was clearly worn out. So the choir gathered around her in a circle and sang, holding her with their voices.
“That was one tired woman,” Brown said.
On another occasion, group members arrived at a nursing home for a sing minutes after the person they were to sing to had died. The family asked them to stay and sing in the hall.
Sings are usually 20 to 30 minutes long, with eight to 10 songs; they can be shorter, depending on the tolerance of the dying person, Gabe said.
Solace does not sing at funerals or memorial services. It does sing at the final session of bereavement groups run by Coastal Family Hospice and at a couple of annual services of remembrance. It also does outreach sings for groups like the Rockland Clergy for Social Justice. Most referrals come from Coastal Family Hospice, Gabe said.
The group has singers of varying ability and experience. Rehearsals consist of going over music chosen for upcoming sings, learning new songs and refining the performance of songs the group already knows. Anyone can request a song to be sung or suggest a new interpretation for the choir to try. Song leaders are more tempo monitors than conductors. There is a feeling of equality and collaboration about the way the group operates.
Brown said she was looking for something meaningful to do in retirement. “To me, this is the most meaningful [thing I could do]. As we age, it brings new meaning to the reality of death,” she said.
Most of Solace's members are middle-aged or older, and, “a lot of us define it as a ministry,” Gabe said. He said he had worked a lot in nursing homes and residential care facilities and had seen a lot of dying people.
“A lot of times, it's just like we tend to ignore death. This [Solace] is a way of honoring that process and letting people know that this is a normal part of life,” he said.
To request a sing, contact Peggy Coyne at 542-7105. To join Solace, call Gabe at 354-6395; Button at 273-3767; or Allan at 354-0822; or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sarah E. Reynolds is copy editor for the Courier Gazette and Camden Herald.
Sarah E. Reynolds has been a reporter and writer for more than 20 years, winning awards from the Maine Press Association and other professional organizations. She loves to read, ride her ATV and play word games.