Local choir brings love and harmony to the final farewell

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Video, photos and text by Mike Tripp, contributor

Music fills the Strite Auditorium at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community (VMRC) as 19 women lift their voices in song, practicing to be at their best when called for a private performance. Often, it’s for an audience of one person, facing the end of life.

“They can be any age,” says Donna Heatwole, director of the Blue Ridge Threshold Choir. “They can be in hospice, palliative care … We can go to the hospital.”

Heatwole founded the local chapter of the international group, Threshold Choir, in 2017.

A week later, at the invitation of a chaplain several members sit in the room of 105-year-old Martha Whissen, the oldest resident at VMRC. Whissen often sings along, her eyes closed.

“We can sing at the end of life if they want us to or before that,” Heatwole explains.

In Whissen’s case, it’s the latter. This bedside singing hasn’t been convened in anticipation of her imminent passing, but simply to surround her with love.

“We want to sing for people along their journey,” Heatwole later writes in an email. “We seek to provide comfort and assurance that they are loved and cared for.”

Below are some of photographer Mike Tripp’s favorite moments from the choir’s practice and visit with Martha.

Blue Ridge Threshold Choir

Donna Heatwole, director of the Blue Ridge Threshold Choir, sets the key during rehearsal.

Blue Ridge Threshold Choir

Blue Ridge Threshold Choir

Blue Ridge Threshold Choir

Blue Ridge Threshold Choir

The Blue Ridge Threshold Choir ends its singings with Walking Each Other Home. “It reminds us that we are all in this together … just walking each other home,” says Heatwole.

Blue Ridge Threshold Choir

On short notice, Heatwole can usually gather five our six members of the choir. Here, they sing to Martha Whissen, 105. The choir visited Whissen – the oldest resident of VMRC, though not yet in her final moments of life – at the invitation of a chaplain, to surround her with love and assurance.

Blue Ridge Threshold Choir

Ruby Sawin, center, and several other choir members gather to sing in Whissen’s room at the retirement home.

Blue Ridge Threshold Choir

At times, Whissen joins the choir in song.

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