One of the most fundamental ways we show love and connection is through touch. This behaviour is so central to our understanding of what it means to be in relationship with another person that visual representations of touch have become one of the most common visual forms of ‘shorthand’ to indicate compassionate caring, including at end of life. The importance of touch holds true no matter the life stage.
Yet we are often afraid, or may even find it repulsive, to touch our loved ones after they die. We may even be ambivalent about being in the same room with the bodies of our loved ones after they die – they are simultaneously the ‘remains’ of the person as well as now something different than before. How to be with our dead in the immediate aftermath of their dying is made all the more challenging because death tends to occur within relatively impersonal institutional spaces, such as hospitals or nursing homes. For most of us living in the ‘global North’, we do not linger for long in the presence of our loved ones after they die, and tending to our dead has become the exclusive realm of medical professionals and morticians.
But can touching, and being with, the bodies of our family and friends for a sustained period after they die help how we remember and how we grieve? Or is this behaviour a form of ‘pathological grieving’ indicating an inability to let go?
I recently had the opportunity to be part of a larger discussion on this topic, which has now been released as a podcast in the “Think: Health” series, from the Australian radio station 2ser 107.3. Entitled “Dealing with Death” (#90), it centers on the fascinating story of Sophie, who recounts her experiences of touching, and being with, those she loved after they died.
You can listen to it online or download it here.
Many of us can feel that we have to behave in a certain ‘acceptable’ way in dealing with death and grief. Sophie’s story is a powerful reminder that there are many ways to approach the end of life, and that while death may be the end of an individual life, it is not the end of relationship.