Her friend was dying of AIDS, and Kate Munger didn’t quite know how to help. She volunteered for a shift at his Petaluma, California, home. “When it was time to sit by his bedside, I was terrified,” says Kate, 66. He was agitated, thrashing under the sheets. So Kate did what she always did when she felt afraid—she began to sing:
“There’s a moon / There’s a star in the sky / There’s a cloud / There’s a tear in my eye / There’s a light / There’s a night that is long / There’s a friend / There’s a pain that is gone.”
Kate repeated the lyrics over and over, singing for two and a half hours. “It calmed me down, which calmed him down,” she recalls. “I knew I had given him the very best gift that I could. And by the time I finished singing, I knew this was something that would be shared.” And the Threshold Choir was born—now a group of 1,300 volunteers in 120 chapters around the world who provide comfort through song to people on the threshold of life.
“We’re death– and tear-phobic in our culture,” says Kate, who lives outside San Francisco, where the first choirs were founded in 2000. “We tend to make ourselves busy when we should sit down or pray or hold someone’s hand.” Singing gives a patient’s family “permission to be authentic with their tears, their laughter, their sorrow, their grief,” says Kate.
When invited to a bedside, choir volunteers select from a repertoire of about 300 songs, many written by Kate and other choir members specifically to convey presence, peace, and comfort. “We sing very softly and quite close,” says Kate. “We’re trying to re-create the distance between a mother’s mouth and a baby’s ear.”
Kate, who has sung at hundreds of bedsides, recalls singing to a newborn daughter of a Cuban musician two days before the infant died at 17 days old. The choir started with all the Spanish songs its members knew but finished with an original piece whose last line was “May you find all the love that you needed was here.”
“It inspired the mom and dad to recognize that they had given this baby everything they could,” says Kate. “They heaped love on her and received love from her. That really helped them grieve and heal.”
Choir singers join to make a difference but remain dedicated volunteers because of the group’s deep sense of community, which is especially apparent when a volunteer’s own loved one falls ill. Kristin Masters asked her Santa Cruz choir members to sing nearly every day throughout her partner Claudette’s final months (she died of brain cancer in 2013). “I didn’t have to hold everything together,” Kristin says. “Being surrounded by love and support let my heart relax.” Claudette’s last days were rich, warm, and sweet. “It was like a sanctuary in there,” Kristin says. “I got to give her that kind of death.”
Visit thresholdchoir.org for more information.