My name is Paul Helliwell-Hargreaves and I am 64 years old. I have been volunteering for Langley Hospice Society at Langley Hospice Residence as a musician for a good part of a year. I play an acoustic guitar and sing songs like ballads, folk, western, rock, old time, and gospel.
If you are familiar with the Hospice Residence, I play by the memorial table in front of the nurses’ station. The acoustics are so good the sound carries to the end of the corridor. If anyone wants me to play in their room, then I will. I’ve had no formal training dealing with death in the Hospice but for 12 years I did volunteer at Delta View SCU playing for residents with dementia. My uncle/godfather, a resident, eventually died there.
I was asked to play for an elderly gentleman and his family, and was asked if I knew “The Red River Valley “(a favourite western song of the gentleman’s). Quite often when I’m singing I don’t really listen to the words, but this time the importance of the words impacted us all: “from this valley they say you are leaving , we will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile “. The man’s wife began to cry, then her three daughters. The powerful emotion in the room made it very difficult for me to carry on (I wanted to bawl), but I found the strength to carry on to the end. I felt that I didn’t belong there witnessing such a private and intimate family moment, but asked if they wanted me to carry on with other numbers and they said yes. I played for another 45 minutes or so then apologized, saying I had to go (my voice was going and fingers had cuts from pressing down on the steel strings). As I was packing up in the lounge every member of the family came to thank me.
I’ve met a lot interesting people at the Residence – both residents and family members. A sweet elderly lady who I learned was born in the UK in Lancashire (I was also born in the UK , but in Yorkshire; the two counties are side by side). Although differing by approximately 30 years in age, we laughed together about our memories.
There is another lady around my age whose daughter from the States visits her regularly. I went in to play on Christmas Eve (I’d played the week before with some carols and was planning on doing more of the same). As I got into the lounge, the daughter was waiting with a little boy, her son. He wanted to sing with me “if that’s OK “, he said. He looked very smart, and was polite; not a little boy, but a young man of seven. He sat beside me and for about an hour and a half we sang traditional church songs and popular Christmas carols. He knew them all. Talking to him I became aware how mature he was for his age; he knew why his grandma was in the Hospice residence and wished he could visit more often. His mother told me that they are paying for piano lessons and he wants to go to music school for a degree.
I’ve come into contact with people I know, usually family members or, in one case, a friend of the family. I was playing one Tuesday when in walked a woman I knew – her mother-in-law was in the Hospice Residence and she was in for quite some time before she passed. My wife used to work for her and her sons and we had socialized with them on a number of occasions. I would go into her room and play just one song before I left for the day, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”. I knew she was a Christian and she liked that number. We’d also chat if she was up to it.
I also play in the extended care units at Maple Hill and Cedar Hill, and one Tuesday in Cedar Hill the group I was playing for was missing a really funny man. He’d died and I was quite upset. He had a great sense of humour and seemed full of life. I went into the Hospice and found out our elderly friend had died. I knew when I’d seen her the week prior she was doing very poorly, so it came as no surprise but it was no less saddening. I also learnt that another gentleman had died and that his body was in his room waiting for the Funeral Home to pick him up.
While I was playing they came for him. All the staff and I stood to show our respects. It was a solemn moment as he was wheeled out followed by his family. It was an emotional moment for me and later I talked to a member of staff as to how they deal with death on a regular basis. She said that quite often they burst into tears but that there is also the living to see to. At about this time, there was a TV show called “Life and Death in the ER “. A lead doctor was talking about doing everything they knew to revive someone who was undergoing CPR without any sign of life. After switching off support machines he said, “My responsibilities lie with the living”. I don’t want to get used to death; I think I can handle it and value life even more. After all, every day we are closer to death. I always finish my day by singing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”, which ends with the line “We’re daily walking close to thee, let it be Lord”, let it be.
Hospice Residence Volunteer