My first act as a mother was to hold my newborn. The intense power of that moment solidified my emotional connection to my son. Then when I visited my grandmother in the hospital, my initial instinct was to take her hand in mine like I’d done countless times as a little girl. The act of touch is a powerful form of communication when words aren’t available or when they fail. What happens if those extraordinary moments of physical connection aren’t allowed — especially for those facing end of life experiences with beloved friends and family?
Touch is a fundamental component of human bonding. Studies show that touch demonstrates compassion and offers comfort. The pandemic is asking that people alter this basic truth. With social distancing practices in place, many family members are saying goodbye from a distance. Waving through windows, video chatting, and phone calls are some of the ways loved ones attempt to maintain some level of connection with those in isolation. All of these leave out the closeness and closure that touch brings them.
While distancing precautions are installed to protect the healthy, this action has altered the grief process for those losing a loved one. Amy Hill, LCSW executive director of Counseling Services for Hosparus Health in Louisville, says, “I think not having that physical connection at the end really adds to the struggles of grief and loss. There’s something that’s just really not natural about that experience.”
Hosparus Health opened its doors in 1978 and is committed to offering planning and counseling services for families and patients that deal with end-of-life situations. This is why the Hosparus organization is taking steps to help individuals cope with this lack of physical contact and the complex grief this can cause.
One way to begin to understand personal grief and how it plays a role in the healing process is to talk with a Hosparus grief counselor. “We provide counseling to any patient in our hospice care who’s experiencing grief prior to and after the death of their loved one. We also provide free counseling to anybody in the community,” Amy says. Hosparus counseling sessions are led by licensed professionals. These meetings are designed so those wanting help can get the tools they need to feel supported.
Amy says that Hosparus has different types of counseling, “We do individual counseling, but a lot of people really benefit from being around other people who are in the same boat.” All of their group meetings have up to 10 people, and she goes on to say that because of social distancing a great many of these counseling sessions are conducted online. Amy says this has been a really effective way to provide care during this time.
Speaking our thoughts and feelings aloud to a counselor gives value to our emotional experience. But when it comes to being unable to have the closure a final touch can bring, Amy relays that Hosparus wants to be a supportive resource for people who are dealing with this. “It’s like nothing any of us have ever really dealt with on this level,” she says. This is why they are using different methods to help those experiencing this loss to find physical comfort.
There are ways to feel that physical connection without physically being there, and one tool Hosparus uses to bridge the gap is called a Thumbprint Stone. They use this with their hospice patients at the end of their lives. It’s a process that uses clay to make imprints of the patients’ fingerprints. These are baked and become hard and can be carried by the family to keep a physical reminder of that person close. “Having something physically that you can hold and carry really helps,” Amy says.
Another method counselors are employing simulates a hug. Margaret Cox, LMFT and child and adolescent grief counselor with Hosparus in Louisville, says to find an old T-shirt or sweatshirt that belonged to a person’s loved one with their scent still present. Then take this shirt and stuff it with pillows or even place the shirt on a favorite stuffed animal. Now a person can recreate a hug or simulate being held. “To deepen this experience, imagine a time when you felt especially loved and connected with your loved one,” Margaret says.
To find more opportunities for physical comfort, Margaret recommends asking the family members with which a person is isolating for hugs or turning everyday tasks such as hand washing into opportunities for nurturing. “When washing your hands imagine infusing love into your hands using your favorite scented soap. Then give yourself a hug for taking a few extra seconds to offer and receive love.” Austin Stethen, LMHCA, grief counselor in Southern Indiana, suggests setting up a space with the belongings of a loved one using blankets, articles of clothing, or other meaningful possessions.
It’s important to note that everyone’s journey through grief is different. Amy says anyone working through the grief process needs to take the time to experience this at a pace that best suits them. “Many people put judgment into how they are experiencing their grief, and the answer is that there is no right or wrong way to grieve because it is very personal to that individual.”
By Tonilyn Hornung