Nursing Times Award Winner

A Very Special Funeral

The lady in the far corner of the bay was clearly close to death. In her early nineties, she was being comforted by her best friend. Her eyes were closed; she seemed very peaceful.

Across the room, a group of sixth formers from a local school were gearing up to sing Pack up your Troubles, requested by a lady who was blind. At Kissing it Better we ask our teams to sing songs from all eras – mindful that my mother, aged 72 when she was in hospital, loved Abba, Queen and Frank Sinatra. So, although we recognise that many older people may not be fans of wartime morale-boosting songs, there are also many who find the words very comforting.

So the girls sang her request, accompanied the Hospital’s Volunteer Manager who was supporting them that afternoon. The blind lady and her visitor loved it. Afterwards, they chatted to her about the song and other memories.

Suddenly, they were aware that someone else was beckoning them over. Across the bay, the lady who was sitting with the dying patient looked deeply moved. Quietly, she explained that when her friend heard the song, she had opened her eyes and started to mouth the words. Could they, she wondered, sing the song again by her bedside?

Of course the girls were delighted to oblige and were very touched when the dying lady not only tried to sing along but also smiled happily throughout. It was a hugely emotional moment, one they would never forget. It’s so easy to believe that singing to a dying patient is inappropriate – and sometimes it is. Yet, when the moment is clearly right, to be able to connect with someone who is so frail is deeply moving for the patient and the singers.

A few days later, the volunteer manager received a phone call. The lady had died, and her relatives wondered if the girls would possibly consider singing the song again at her funeral? Scheduled for the Friday of the Spring half term, the Volunteer Manager was concerned that it might be difficult to arrange as the students could be away. But, when she contacted them, those that were free were delighted to come.

It is daunting experience to sing at a funeral in a large church in front of a group of people you don’t know. The girls said that seeing them names in the Order of Service was both exciting and terrifying. But, when their moment came, they delivered their song with style and grace – and that’s what the healthcare charity, Kissing it Better is all about. They have lovely voices. Singing songs on the ward is something they do every week to patients who appreciate the familiar music that triggers wonderful recollections of a better time – something that is of particular value for people living with dementia . The patients also love the unexpectedness of the music. Wards can be dull places if you are in hospital for a long time. A sudden burst of energy and colour from sensitive sixth formers from a local school provides a delightful distraction from an otherwise dull routine.

And it’s great for the girls too. Many don’t have older relatives living nearby so getting to know about what life was like long ago, from someone with a wealth of wonderful memories, is a experience to be treasured. Over the years, we have collected some remarkable stories. One patient recalled working for Sir Winston Churchill in 1951. Another spoke of the time, as a missionary in Africa, he was asked by a local tribesman if he would take his ten year old son and raise him as his own. He did and explained how delighted he had been when he brought Kofi back to England, and he gained a place at Oxford University. But, as I gasped at that story, he hadn’t finished. The man then said, quite calmly, that his proudest moment had been when Kofi had become Prime Minister of Ghana. And it was true: Kofi Busia was Prime Minister of Ghana from 1969 to 1972. Until that man told that story to us, no one who was caring for him knew anything about it.

But my final point goes back to what the girls gain from this experience: communication skills; confidence in shedloads; and a good understanding of what it means to have a variety of conditions linked to old age, such as dementia, strokes, arthritis, hearing loss.

But is also makes them wiser. When they girls sang ‘Pack up your Troubles’ so beautifully at the funeral, the vicar explained afterwards that the words summed up the character of the lady. She always put her troubles behind her and worried about other people instead.

Organising a funeral can be a massive worry. It’s the last thing you will ever do for someone you love, so you feel you’ve only got one chance to get it right. As the girls sang that day, they noticed the husband of the lady who had invited them, gently turn and smile at his wife and squeeze her hand as if he was saying, ‘Thank you. Inviting those girls to sing that song was a beautiful idea. You got it perfectly right’.

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And finally, special thanks to girls from Kings High Warwick, and Sharon Elswood, Volunteer Manager from Warwick Hospital, who made this event happen. Across the country many hundreds of young people from universities, colleges and schools now regularly sing, recite, pamper, reminisce etc as part of our work in hospitals and care homes.

We are hugely grateful to you all

Jill Fraser

Jill Fraser

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