This morning I had a great conversation with an elderly friend and her younger neighbor. The three of us while from different generations wholeheartedly agreed on the importance of physical touch in the beginning and end stages of life. A baby that is denied human touch can fail to thrive emotionally. Visit any skilled nursing home and residents you pass in the hallways may reach out to you, longing for a connection and the touch of your hand. The author Gary Chapman recognizes “physical touch” as one of The Five Love Languages in his New York Times bestselling book. I recently read about a younger woman who was in her final stages of life. The idea of her body being taken and left alone in a mortuary was unsettling to her. It struck me, she wanted human touch and connection to continue even into the days following her death.
Less than 100 years ago, extending human connection after our death was not uncommon. We were much more likely to pass away at home, surrounded by loved ones. Our families kept our bodies at home, typically for three days after our death, for the community to grieve and pay respects. Three days assured our families that we weren’t going to “wake” – hence the term commonly used for visitation. Now, 80% of us spend our final waking moments in hospitals or nursing homes, hooked to machines, alarms beeping, in the care of nurses and doctors. Shortly after our passing, our bodies are transported to be dealt with by strangers. Even though, according to surveys, 80 % of us say we would prefer to die at home if possible. This isn’t right or wrong, it’s simply a shift in our reality. And there are many factors that contribute to this – amazing medical advancements that have extended our lives, as well as the perceived burden we do not want to place on loved ones caring for us at home. But it is a shift.
There’s a movement underfoot to allow space for the end of life experience once typical of yesteryear. Death Doulas. Similar to the rise in partnering with childbirth doulas to assist with home deliveries, an interest in death doulas sometimes referred to as soul midwives, is on the climb. Trained “death” doulas are sometimes paid, sometimes volunteers who specialize in giving personal attention during end of life. The personal touch they bring may include working with us in our final days to create a legacy or memory project such as a scrapbook, audio recording, or compilation of writings. Doulas may be called to help restore broken relationships before it’s too late. Talking through the last breaths, providing a calm soothing presence. They may provide massages with oils, or simply hold hands with a loved one – human physical touch we crave. Doulas can provide this special touch not only in our homes, but when necessary in hospitals, hospice units, and nursing homes too.
The younger woman who wanted to make sure she wasn’t left alone after her death…. Her doula and her funeral directors partnered with her and each other to ensure her wishes were met. They worked closely together to allow her to stay at home peacefully following her passing, and her funeral director was the expert in knowing just the right time she needed to be readied for moving on to her next steps for services. It’s comforting to know that there are folks who are trained and dedicated to navigating us and our families through our final days on this earth, holding our hands through the sometimes scary process, and assisting those left behind in celebrating us.
It’s not too early to reach out to the people in our community who are there to help us through this unique time in our life. Consider your end of life preferences and become familiar with the individuals who will be caring for you and your family through that special time. Get to know the people who can provide the human touch.
|Amy Jo (AJ) Barkley
staff writer for The Arlington Memorial Gardens. AJ joins the writing and research team at The Arlington Memorial Gardens with a rich background in Human Resources for both corporate and non-profit organizations. As the wife of a Presbyterian Church Minister in Cincinnati, AJ spends her time working in the church and helping multiple charities and non-profit organizations. Her desire is that the tidbits of information she discovers and shares are helpful and hopeful!