Monday, June 13, 2022

Companion Voices: singing for the end of life

There are several singing groups in the US, UK and beyond which specialise in bringing songs of comfort to the dying.

Watford Companion Voices

You may have heard of the Threshold Choir network in the US. Here in the UK we have Companion Voices founded by Judith Silver in 2014. I asked Judith to write this guest post to tell us more about her work in this area.

After more than eight years of Companion Voices, there’s so much to say. I thought I’d give a little bit of background and then share part of the welcome letter we’ve just created for new Companions. I think that will give a really good flavour of what we’re about.

in the beginning …

It was December 2013 and I was visiting two dear friends in Brighton. We were talking about our plans and intentions for the new year. I said I’d had an idea in mind for a long time, inspired by the Threshold Choirs in the US: to bring people together to sing at bedsides when someone was dying, to bring comfort and to help them not feel alone.

Fast forward to February 2014 and we had our first gathering of about 12 people, personally invited and feeling drawn to explore this together. We learnt and sang songs I’d gathered from my years as a choir leader, mostly lullabies and easy harmony songs. And we talked about our experiences and feelings around the end of life.

Both elements are vital to equip us to do this work: as well as knowing the songs we need to have strong bonds between us and know how to support each other. For about a year we didn’t have a name and then we brainstormed around what we were doing and came up with Companion Voices which we felt crystallised our essence: singing, being together, standing alongside each other and those we sing for.

Then other groups gradually formed: Watford, London, Frome, Cambridge, Bristol, the Heart of England (Warwick/Leamington), West Yorkshire and more. It’s been a great unfolding. Some groups meet continuously, some ebb and flow (rather Brigadoon-like!), one no longer meets. Some of my beloved buddies in the Natural Voice Network have become Companion Voices singing leaders, other leaders have come from elsewhere.

All of us are inspired by the idea of this way of being of service; and, of course, we and all the Companions become more deeply connected with our own relationship to death and dying because it’s really a great deal more than singing that we do together.

the experience of singing to the dying

In terms of the actual singing for people, it’s of course a deep experience and there’s only so much preparation you can do. It takes courage, focus and preparation. Often one of the first questions that comes up in a group is: what if I become too emotional to sing? The answer is that we do what we can to prepare in our learning circles but if, in that moment, tears come we simply let our Companions hold the space, we trust it’s okay. Perhaps we intended to bring our voice but what was needed was our natural and heartfelt resonance with the grief of others in that more visceral form.

Four years after I founded Companion Voices my Mum was dying and a lot of different Companions came to sing for us over the course of six weeks. I got to experience first-hand what it’s like to have that loving presence, that care, that sound in the room — both for the person in the bed and anyone else in the space. It’s powerful, it’s generous, it’s consoling. I’d always said, believed and told the Companions that, but it was truly precious to actually receive it first-hand.

Every person we sing for is special and unique and we feel the honour of being invited into that intimate space. I often try to express how it’s just not a case of ‘we give and they receive’, ‘us and them’. It’s all ‘us’. We’re all in it together. Today I’m singing but tomorrow it could be me in that bed. And it’s so far from being one-way: I receive gifts through my singing, given to me by those who are listening. At this point I often find my hands and arms are describing an infinity sign.

our welcome letter

As promised, here’s part of our welcome letter, which was the idea of Gilly Bryerley, who has been working with us this year to develop Companion Voices:

“As you will probably already have understood, Companion Voices is about so much more than singing. At the heart of our work is a vision of a society where everyone can imagine a good death and have access to companionship at the end of life. This is quite a radical thing in a culture where the subject of death is taboo.

The journey of a Companion starts with the willingness to live with an awareness of death and to connect with others on the same path. By being brave enough to consider this work, you have already begun. Each Companion’s journey is trodden at their own pace. Some may take a few months to be ready to sing at a bedside and for others this might be a journey of years. You will never be pressured to sing at a bedside; you and your group leader will decide together when you’re ready.

Companion Voices creates a community in which people meet regularly and sing as a way of honouring death as an inevitable part of life. There are certain skills each Companion will learn along the way, some of them musical and others not. Each Companion arrives with a different starting point. Perhaps you have a background in singing and are interested in how to bring that into an end-of-life context? Maybe you have experience in end-of-life settings but are new to singing? Or perhaps you are simply drawn to this because of your life experience or a desire to relate to death differently? All are valued and all are welcome.”

I hope this has given you a sense of Companion Voices. If you feel drawn to join us, whether as a leader, Companion or supporter, or to call on us to sing, we would love to hear from you. Email:

Companion Voices website:

With love,
Judith Silver

Chris Rowbury


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