Tuesday, October 12, 2010

10 Ways to Mindfully Touch the Dying

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)


  1. Wonderful article...

    When my grandmother was in her last days of dying (12 years ago), and unconscious, the gauge I used about touch was that she didn't like being touched in affectionate ways when she was alive, so I didn't engage in a lot of touching while she was dying. I would just sit as close to her by her bed as I could and was "energetically" present to her - sending her love. She seemed to respond. And for some reason, as I stood in her room one time, I just started humming - softly and gently. There are so many ways to "touch" someone. I like #8 - touch from the Heart. Thank you...

  2. Yes, sometimes mindful touching is about, NOT touching and respecting need for distance :) Someone very very dear to me is like that, does not want to be touched, and my way of loving her is to leave her her space, and put aside my own need for physical closeness.

    And, as you so beautifully tell, there are many ways to touch other than with our hands, the voice, the way we engage with our eyes, our simple act of mindful presence, . . . whatever the other person needs.

  3. These 10 suggestions are excellent in ALL approaches to our life! Not just with those who are dying. In my mind this is what Buddhism is about. Actually doing something rather than thinking about doing something. Action not thought. Thanks for the reminder that it is our actions that matter.

  4. Yes, the dying have a way of reminding us how to truly live . . .

  5. I am a recently qualified Oncology Massage Therapist who currently has the honour and privilege of massaging my dying uncle. What an amazing gift and teacher he has been to me! I told him yesterday that although he is dying, he is the most alive person I know!

  6. Lovely. I wish this had crossed my path before my mother died.