During the lockdown at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, songwriter Emily Cavanagh was heartbroken over the stories of people who were scared, alone and isolated from family as they faced the end of their lives.
She wanted to do something to help, so she started calling hospitals to ask if any patients dying of COVID would like to have a song written about them.
"I was so sad. I wanted to send a little light," says Cavanagh, who is based in New York. "People were dying with no one to hold their hand or be in the room with them or tell them a story or even listen to their story. It just felt like there wasn't much we could do. But in this really small way, as a songwriter, I started to think, 'Maybe I could find a way to tell people's stories through songs.' "
Cavanagh began her career as a social worker by day, and writing and singing songs at night. For the last 10 years, she's combined those passions by making music to do good in the world. Whether she's singing for kids with cancer, performing for people with Alzheimer's, sharing her voice with children experiencing homelessness in the Bronx, or traveling internationally to sing at orphanages, she's using her creativity and talent to help others.
Amid the frightening summer of 2020 in N.Y.C., her song-writing initiative for people who are dying was born. "We just saw the power of music," Cavanagh tells PEOPLE. "This allows a little bit of peace and a little bit of comfort in such a hard time."
After receiving funding from a benefactor — whose wife died a year ago, at one of the hospices where Cavanagh regularly writes songs for patients — she officially launched the non-profit A Song For You nearly two years later in June of this year.
"He was so generous and said, 'You've been doing this for free for 18 months. I would love for you to be able to continue this well beyond the pandemic.' But his only stipulation was it has to be a nonprofit. He said, 'I want you to keep writing for this specific population of people, people who are at the end of their lives who sometimes go forgotten and their stories aren't always told,'" Cavanagh recalls.
Now she has a team of 50 volunteer musicians — and she's looking for more, because many singers and songwriters are back on tour and often too busy for the quick turnaround that's required when writing custom songs for hospice patients.
At first, many patients wanted to hear someone cover a favorite song. Now, though, Cavanagh and her team exclusively write original songs about the people who are dying to tell their stories so they can be remembered.
Patients' loved ones fill out a questionnaire so the songwriter can get to know the subject, what type of music they like and — equally important — don't like. Cavanagh or a volunteer then writes an original song and records it as an MP3 file or on video so the song can be sent to the person who inspired the lyrics and music.
To date, A Song For You has sent about 150 original songs to patients in hospitals or hospices around the country (another 100 covers were also sent before the non-profit was launched). Often, social workers print out the lyrics and frame them for family members who are experiencing the excruciating loss of a loved one.
"It was just a small gift that we could send, and something that they could keep with them long after that person had passed," Cavanagh says.
One woman, who was able to marry before she died, got to dance at her wedding to a song Cavanagh wrote about her love story.
Cavanagh also penned a tune for a 38-year-old man dying of cancer after his teenage daughter wanted him to know his legacy would live on in music. She used his daughter's words for the piece, which was titled: "Singing Your Name."
"It's just this idea of going on even after someone has left. I'll go on singing your name," Cavanagh explains. "If it's a dark time, I'll light the way, and then someday your memory will do that for me."
There are song writers who focus on making music for happy occasions like weddings, but Cavanagh believes the focus of her non-profit is also celebration — even if it's poignant.
"This celebrates someone's life and their legacy in a really simple way. But it's able to carry on even when they're not here anymore," she says of the songs she and her fellow songwriters have created. "That's important."