Swan Song: voice and silence at death

Something very spiritual happens when we sing; opening our bellies and hearts and throats to give voice to beauty. As someone who is easily crushed by even a frown in the direction of my singing voice I testify the courage that it takes to be heard and to be conscious of what your voice creates; it lays you vulnerable and makes you powerful.

What does the sound of singing do for someone who is dying? For many people who have been sung to by a Threshold Choir (a 3 part female voice acapella choir that sing at the bedside of people dying) they experienced a release of fear, a deep peacefulness and calm; a feeling of being Loved.

The resonance not just of the beautiful voices, but the open hearted willingness to Be with someone in their dying days; with the intention to demonstrate Love; creates a dome of sound and peace which for many people is a holding, a rocking in the arms of the Beloved.

In equal measure the power and vulnerability of silence is also essential at the deathbed. In fact as a person moves closer and closer to the threshold it becomes manifestly apparent that communication will only draw them back. This is why the Threshold Choir repertoire is largely created bespoke for the purpose and copyrighted – so the songs are neutral and not too memorable.

In a somewhat left field conversation the other day a friend of mine, picking up on the use of the word “rapture” in a poem, exclaimed “when do we ever feel rapture?!” and I was taken back to the last death I was doula for and I remember the times when he and I were alone; and I dropped into deep silence. And beneath us a great cavernous reservoir of peace opened beneath us and we were there, in that space. Releasing with each breath into deeper and deeper and deeper silence.

To the listening ears there was not silence; the sounds of his laboured breathing and the noises in the corridor beyond were present. But there was silence in the soul. And I was enraptured by it. The struggle at the human level started to abate, his breathing was eased, he was gurgling less, his eyes were closed, a slight smile on his face.

The most important moments of the times I have sat with the dying have been in silence. I sat with a gentleman once who had had his voice box removed; he could only breathe his words in a raw and soundless way. His eyes told me most of his story and his loss of faith; his fear. In a silent conversation without words or effort his eyes and mine met, he relaxed completely, gestured to his heart and mouthed “God is in here” and I nodded. I remember how in that moment the room was dissolved into golden light and there was only him and I, he relaxed back into a deep sleep and I left him. He died that night.

Some people need to be alone to die; some need people there. What an honour it would be to sing someone over the threshold itself if that was indeed their dying wish. When my own father died when I was 14 years of age he definitely chose a moment when he was alone to die; but shortly afterwards I entered the isolation ward and took his hand; spontaneously the song “No Need to Argue” by the Cranberries came out of my mouth.


The process of mourning and grieving can be greatly assisted by use of the voice; singing, yes, but increasingly coming back into consciousness is the concept of lamenting and keening. This is why the workshops we run are called “Song, Sound and Silence” because not all keening is singing; it has a wilderness to it that can’t be captured in a musical score; it can be a howl, a wail or a guttural groan. Grief can take us to places beyond words, beyond time, where only a raw howl will do.

When emotions are no longer energy in motion; stagnant in our body; so we become depressed and physically ill. To come together to grieve creates the safe space to enter across those wild edges, off map, beyond reason into the madness that is the only sane reaction to losing our love.

Another workshop we offer at the Red Tent End of Life Doula Preparation is Griefwork and Ritual (and the next blog is going to be about ritual) and the Grief Ceremony which has been so inspired by the work of Phyllida Anam Aire and Francis Weller; based on something wonderful I experienced at Findhorn led by Audicia Morley and Ilona Kastner; is a journey first into grief, then through it.

More about singing to assist the Soul, more about the grief ceremony and more about the use of ritual in future blogs but I shall leave you here with the incomparible voice of Phyllida Anam Aire:

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