“I’m single and haven’t been touched by another human being in over a month”—this is a phrase I say every so often to friends. It’s a favorite lament of mine, one that carries a certain smug shock value. Now that I live with a family, it’s not entirely true. Nine-year old Hope is a regular in my new life of hugging. She snuggles in at church. I’m now touched at least once a week.
We live in an age of disconnection, of fractured communities and relationships. People receive plenty of virtual (((hugs))) on bad days or in crisis, but that hardly makes up for a physical embrace. Truthfully we’re all muddling along in our own space be it with family or alone.
I have my own personal force field. It surrounds me on my drive into the office, at Starbucks (who are these people in line that don’t respect the two foot rule?!), and at work, where I’m attached at the hip to a Mac desktop. But I do break out by way of a twice-weekly hospice gig. I am called to bring a physical and spiritual presence and the gift of time to the dying. I clasp shoulders, arms, and hands with ease. I’m an avid hugger. Mercy breaks all of my personal boundaries.
This year I picked up a new role where I’ve had to step up my game—that of touch therapy.
I’m part of small army of volunteers that fan out across the city rubbing feet, hands, and edema-swollen limbs with essential oils. Sometimes patient extremities are manicured; most times they’re not. And you don’t know what you’ll encounter until you’re side by with the other person. The thought “Seriously, you want me to touch that foot??” mingles with heightened compassion.
It can be a nightmare for the non-toucher feeler.
The sanctity of human life is just as important at the point of death as it is in the womb. Newborns desperately need touch, but so do those near at the end of life, which in many ways is the most important life transition. Research shows a multitude of benefits to physical contact, including lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, which reduce stress. And not surprisingly, studies reveal that hugs can flood the brain with oxytocin (the chemicals of well-being). When the dental assistant vigorously rubs my arm as the dentist sticks an 8-inch needle in my gum, I do feel less anxious, honestly.
Human touch at the end of life is crucial. People often feel otherworldly as death nears, and the ravages of terminal disease cause them to feel fragile and not worthy of touch. Understanding these issues and seeing patients respond to physical contact prompted me to learn touch therapy and incorporate it into all of my hospice roles.
I recently visited a 63 year-old man with end stage lung cancer now lodged in his brain and bones. When I entered his bedroom I could see he was twisted up in pain. The man, let’s call him Tom, was clearly suffering and pain meds weren’t touching it. His wife and two sisters flocked around his bed moving him this way and that… trying in vain to fix the problem.
The enormity of my task was ahead. I batted away legitimate feelings of insufficiency. I’m not a masseuse or a skilled professional, and yet his family looked at me as if my magical fingers would redeem the moment. In the next hour or so ahead, I used an essential oil called “pain away” to massage his feet, hands, shoulders, and an area just above his groin.
I warmed my hands with fragrant oil, worked my fingers into parts of the skin, and took my cues from his breathing. I prayed to myself as I rubbed, for peace to descend, for comfort, for easement from pain. I prayed he would crave the presence of Jesus. After careful attention to a limb, I covered it with a soft towel. The words that came to mind then and every time I do touch therapy: “This is fragile intimacy with a stranger. I am walking on holy ground.”
I then spent 45 minutes with Tom’s wife. We chatted about the trajectory of his illness, the grandchildren, juicing, Mexican food, and horses. She casually mentioned her excitement that their pastor son-in-law (“the one Tom was never particularly fond of…”) had prayed with Tom and he had made a profession of faith. “A great weight was lifted off my chest,” she said. She also cried as she described her husband, once the tough cowboy and farm hand, now having his diapers changed. I gave her a long hug on the way out. She didn’t pull away. I didn’t pull away. Serious illness and death have a way of erasing the formalities between friends and strangers.
Jesus wants us to care for the dying. He wants us to hold one another up in our most fragile moments. He wants us to seek His presence in the midst of intimate ministry with others. And He wants me to be intentional about breaking through my force field and finding ways to minister daily and receive ministry through touch.
“…so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around His waist. After that, He poured the water into a basin and began to wash His disciples feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him” John 13:4.
As a reluctant toucher, pressing my hands against the skin of a stranger in great need is both gritty and beautiful. It’s a privilege. It’s what Jesus would do if he were in my place. And indeed, he is always in the midst.