You can touch your dying loved one with gentle words. You can also touch him or her with your hands, and that may be even more important, as touch is one of the last remaining ways that we can effectively be present for a dying person. This is about mindful touch, healing touch, a way of touching the sick or the dying that will make them feel connected, cared for, met, loved, not alone. It is an ability we all have. It is also something we are not always comfortable with. When to touch, where to touch, how to touch, how much? So many questions we may have as we sit by the bedside of our loved one . . .
One of the most powerful training I received as a Zen Hospice volunteer was from Irene Smith, a pioneer in the field of mindful touch for the dying. From Irene’s training, I have taken away these 10 principles:
#1 Know your comfort zone:
Figure out where you stand with touching, and only do what feels comfortable to you.
#2 Get centered:
Sit down by the bed. Pay attention to your breath, and let it slow down naturally. And listen in silence. Listen with your ears, listen with your eyes, listen to your loved one with your whole being.
#3 Simply touch:
When I first heard Irene’s instruction, I immediately took it that I was to perform a massage. While massage may be a good thing for the dying person, often what’s called for is a much more ordinary form of touch.
#4 Make touch a part of the care routine:
Bathing, brushing hair, changing diapers, feeding, transferring from bed to a chair, . . . these are all natural opportunities to mindfully touch your loved one.
#5 Ask permission:
If the person can still speak, simply ask. If the person can no longer speak, or is confused, state what you are going to do, and watch for subtle body responses from the person for feedback that would indicate comfort or lack of comfort.
#6 Gaze softly:
Do not stare at the person, and do not avoid their gaze either.
#7 Speak slowly and clearly:
The person may need time to integrate what you are saying.
#8 Touch with intention:
Touch from the heart, with love, care, and respect.
#9 Take your time:
Don’t rush. Approach the person slowly, and move your hand just as slowly.
#10 Keep on checking:
Keep on telling the person what you are going to do next, and keep on watching for responses, both verbal and non verbal.
And remember, mindfully touching your dying loved one, may be one of the greatest gifts you can give him or her, and yourself as well.
May you be at peace, and at ease. And may your loved feel the same as well . . .
(this post was also published in the Huffington Post)