Sometimes I think those four words are the most important phrase I use in my work.
How to touch, ensuring touch in consensual, soothing touch, and touch after death are all ways touch has showed up in my work as a home funeral guide, pregnancy loss doula, death doula, hospice volunteer, and funeral director. But touch after death, I’ve found, is the situation in which I use it most often.
I’ve written before about the utter stillness that is unique in a dead body. For most of us it is the first tangible experience we have of the absence death will leave in our lives. Because it is so visceral, I find that often people are reluctant to touch the body of their loved ones. And so I always am sure to say: “it’s ok to touch them, to hold them… this is the body that housed someone you loved. Honor it.”
My first personal experience with touch after death occurred in 2003, long before I was aware path in life would lead me to my work in death, when my grandmother died. My mother and I had been sitting vigil with her. My mother holding her mother’s hand and me holding my mother’s hand. When my grandmother exhaled for the last time, my mother did not let go of her hand. We sat that way for a long time until I got up to call my dad and tell him to come join us. I don’t know who told my mom, if anyone, that is was ok to touch my grandmother even after she had died. But she did, and it has always seemed like the natural way to say goodbye.
Touch after death figured prominently in my home funeral guide training. “It’s ok to touch.” home funeral guides are taught. Caring for and preparing the body of someone loved is a final act of love. Touch was also very much a part of my pregnancy loss doula training and complimented what I had seen working at a Children’s Hospital. When death occurs during or immediately following pregnancy it is so, so important to take the time to say hello and get to know the body of the infant you must say goodbye to. “It’s ok to touch,” these families are told. And they have cradled their babies in their arms, dressed them, and sung to them. Touching them to know that they had lived, they had been been loved, and that they mattered before letting them go.
As a death doula and a hospice volunteer I have been present for families at the time of their loved one’s deaths. I have watched as a woman who had been married to her husband for over 70 years, jerked her hands away from his body when he died. “It’s ok to touch,” I offered, but she unable to touch him in death. And I have watched as a widow and her children climbed into the bed to hold their husband and father and laugh and cry. He had died when they were all out of the room. I called them back. “It’s ok to touch,” I offered. And they did.
As a funeral director I have sat with many families preparing to view the body of a loved one who was to be cremated. Sometimes these people had died suddenly, alone. Sometimes they had been autopsied. Every time, they had been kept in the refrigeration unit. “They will feel cold,” I say, “but it is ok touch them and hold them.” Once, as I closed the viewing room doors to give a mother the chance to say goodbye to her adult son, I glimpsed her take him in her arms and she recited “I’ll love you forever, like you for always, as long as I’m living my baby you’ll be.” (From the Robert Munch book)
In 2019 on November 4th, my mother-in-law died. The hospital called and told us to come, but she died while we were on the way there. Seeing my husband frozen halfway into her room, I knew they only thing I could offer him in that moment was those four simple words. “It’s ok to touch,” I said, and he took her hand and wept.
I know during this pandemic families are often separated and unable to gather with their loved one during their dying process. Now, more than ever, I hope that the people who can be present with the body after its death are offered the gift of permission to touch. Because it is ok to touch. With love, with sorrow, with anger, with wonder. Touch is the bridge that carries us beyond loving someone who is alive and towards loving someone who has died.