The Power of Touch for the Dying

August 8, 2019

“…the power of touch can offer incomparable solace” 
The Inspired Caregiver

It is commonly known and accepted that touch from one human being to another is beneficial, even necessary to our wellbeing. But when it comes to touching the dying many people are not comfortable with doing that; there may be a fear of touching, that it is wrong in some way, causing pain or not knowing how or where to touch a person dying. But even if the dying person was not comfortable with touch throughout their life, most want to be touched at the end of their life. The benefits of touch are physiological, emotional and spiritual…a gift to both the receiver and the giver. It is one of the last ways to be present for a person dying.

I am a Massage Therapist and for the last 29 years I have seen over and over again how much touch through massage can reduce pain, stress and anxiety. It wasn’t until 2002 that I had my first experience of how much touch benefits the dying person.

Emil was my first client that was referred to me by hospice. I went to his home twice a week for six months and gave him gentle massages. Emil was an Auschwitz survivor and was dying from colon cancer. He had a deep need to be gently touched especially to have his head stroked. Two days before Emil died he asked for me to come to see him. I knew what he wanted and as I sat beside him stroking his head very gently his morphine induced tremors subsided and he was able to relax and be less agitated. It was a very special, sacred moment to give this man, whom I had come to love, some moments of peace as his death approached.

In the article “10 Ways to Mindfully Touch the Dying”, Marguerite Manteau-Rao writes that “touch is one of the last remaining ways that we can effectively be present for a dying person.” She also writes that “mindfully touching your dying loved one, may be one of the greatest gifts you can give him or her, and yourself as well.” I have experienced this truth with Emil and with many other hospice clients over the years.

There are many specific ways that touch can benefit the dying. Touch helps in lessening the feelings of isolation and loneliness by being a link to the outside world. It eases stressors such as these and stimulates endorphins helping with easing pain and discomfort. Touch can give the dying person a sense of emotional safety, feeling nurtured and loved. The dying can experience agitation, fear, anger and depression which loving touch can help to alleviate. In “The Inspired Caregiver”, Jeannie Thomas writes that “as a loved one nears death, conversation is minimal. There is no more to say. There is no more to do. By simply holding hands with your dying loved one, much love, care and comfort can be communicated.”

Touch for the dying can offer the means for emotional release of feelings from memories that emerge. Irene Smith, a pioneer in mindful massage for hospice says that, “touch provides dying persons with an opportunity for quiet reflection on one’s personal life experiences” and can “help the dying person to develop a more positive relationship with his/her physical body and in turn with the dying process.” It can also convey feelings of being connected to a greater whole.

Caregivers and medical personal attending the physical needs of the dying person can be void of loving, mindful touch. The two do not need to be exclusive of each other—-bathing, dressing and taking care of the myriad of other physical needs can be done with a mindful, loving intention and the use of comforting words in a soothing tone of voice can ease the stressors the dying person is experiencing.

Laying on of hands is the oldest form of a doctor’s skills. In an excerpt from “What Dying People Want”, David Kahl quotes Dr. Lewis Thomas as saying “touching is a real professional secret, an essential skill, and the most effective act of doctors.”

Weather it is a loved one or friend, a doctor or nurse, a hospice volunteer or a death doula loving, mindful touch has the power to alleviate emotional, physical and spiritual suffering for the person dying. It is the greatest of gifts we can give to each other.

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