A touch of tenderness

The Cathedral by Rodin.

My son gleefully squeezed harder at the knotted muscle in my shoulder, with a ‘Now I’ve got you’ as I groaned in agony. We have established and agreed that he has a slightly sadistic tendency where I am concerned. It may have something to do with my knack of getting just the right spot on the painful muscles as we got his body working again. Day after painful day, for months on end. So now it is payback… and he appears to enjoy it. He still manages to lay the blame squarely on my aching shoulders, muttering something that sounds vaguely like ‘hereditary’.

He is a little more squeamish than I. His face screws up in horror as my wrist bones crunch back into place when he applies traction. It is, however, nice to regain freedom of movement occasionally. So I make him do it from time to time. I, on the other hand, had no compunction when it came to stretching his hamstrings using my entire bodyweight, such as it was.

Hands are one of the first things I notice, after the eyes and the smile; they have always mattered to me. They are wonderful things, capable of such creativity and expression, both of character and the unspoken word. They can be beautiful in many ways, through form or function, delicacy or strength, but they are never silent.

There is a lot to be said for the healing touch of hands. In the hospice I worked with, the entire nursing staff was trained in Reiki and a room was set aside for alternative therapies. The Matron was kind enough to offer me some therapy when I was going through a particularly rough patch some years ago.

Not only was it unusual for someone to take time and care for me at that point of my life, it was a beautiful experience in its own right. Although I had learned Reiki myself years earlier, it was the first time I had been on the receiving end since that time. The room was quiet, the garden visible through the window, the light soft.  I do not know whether it was what she was doing, the ambience of a place where so much care was given, or simply the possibility of release in the intimacy of such a moment of care, but I remember sitting there with tears streaming down my cheeks.

I had learned the value of touch while caring for my late partner through severe arthritis and cancer some years before. There was a period where we were warned that massage was not a good idea for cancer patients as it might encourage it to spread through the stimulation of the lymphatic system…but there came a point I was told it was okay to go ahead. Which brought its own grief in the knowing.

Our physical relationship had suffered very badly. It is a common thing in chronic illness, but seldom spoken of, so I will speak of it here. It was one of the greatest griefs of his illness, loving each other as we did, when he was so weary and in so much pain most of the time. Afraid of raising emotions he could not meet for either of us, he withdrew from me  for a very long time. We no longer even cuddled or held hands, there was no contact other than at a practical or therapeutic level… or when I reached out my hand every morning before opening my eyes, to see if he was still with me, still warm, still breathing.

Then one day, on his way to the kitchen, he squeezed my shoulder in passing. So precious was that simple touch that I burst into tears. That opened the floodgates for us both and the intimacy of touch and tenderness was restored, for the little while we had left together.

Touch was the last thing we had too. I was close by when he died at home. I closed his eyes and washed his face, composed into lines of peace. I spoke to him as I made him ready for the medics that had to come. When he finally lay in our bed I kept vigil with him for a little while, a last while, performing those final services of care as the warmth of life left his body. Then I kissed him goodbye.

The value of those final moments to lay him to rest cannot be described. My younger son, then 12, had crept in to sit with him, speaking to him softly and stroking his face. Saying goodbye and seeing the life that had left with no fear of death, only love.

I remember even further back, assisting at the birth of my little brother. I was ten years old and my mother had chosen to give birth at home. No doubt many today may frown on the idea of a child watching her own mother in labour or helping at a birth. To me it was simply the most beautiful thing to hold that scrap of humanity, still wet, as he took his first breath. I watched in wonder and a tiny hand grasped my finger. That touch too was full of love. Touch, after all, is the simplest and most beautiful communication.

Birth and death have become sanitised in our cultures and we have become divorced from the natural process of passing into life and out of it. We are encouraged to be born and to die in hospitals, rather than at home, and no matter how wonderful the staff, or how much safer it may be, there is a constraint and a lack of intimacy in such circumstances.

I have told elsewhere of the death of one of my great grandmothers, when I was a very little girl. I do not remember her funeral at all… but I remember the solemn gathering around the great bed and the goodbyes. There was no fear. Death was acknowledged and life marked with respect. Grieving began gently and had time to unfold, instead of being, as is all too often the case these days, rushed through the rapid time slot of a funeral that means those left behind have to deal with a sense of unreality and disbelief, as well as their loss.

These natural transitions become shrouded in mystery and often fear, when they are kept behind closed doors in a sterile environment. Yet, in the intimacy of these first and last moments, touch is so important, both to welcome and to say goodbye. It is a healing in its own right, for both the one who reaches out and the one who receives that gift.

I think we shy away from touch a lot generally. Particularly in England, where our stiff upper lip can seem to extend to encompass the whole body. Outside of a close relationship we do not like to invade another’s personal space uninvited… and we seldom have the courage to invite when we feel a need to be held. I can only speak for myself here, because it is so seldom spoken of. But there are times when all I want is a shoulder on which to lay my head or the touch of a hand, the warmth of another human being who is aware, and who cares enough to reach through the barriers of convention.

We speak about staying in touch. About how we feel. So many of the words we use to describe our emotions are the same ones we use about the sense of touch. I do not think that is a coincidence. It is the simplest, most basic human need in many ways, from the very moment we enter this world to that final closing of the eyes and the kiss in loving blessing as we enter a new phase of existence. I have to wonder how often we miss the unspoken signs and fail to offer the simple magic and tenderness of touch.

About Sue Vincent

Sue Vincent is a Yorkshire-born writer and one of the Directors of The Silent Eye, a modern Mystery School. She has written a number of books, both alone and with Stuart France, exploring ancient myths, the mysterious landscape of Albion and the inner journey of the soul. She is owned by a small dog who also blogs. Follow her at scvincent.com and on Twitter @SCVincent Find her books on Goodreads and follow her on Amazon worldwide to find out about new releases and offers. Email: findme@scvincent.com
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83 Responses to A touch of tenderness

  1. davidprosser says:

    I’m also fixed on hands Sue as I think they tell you a lot.
    Though the physical relationship fell by the wayside after Ju was diagnosed, I’m glad to say the touching and hand holding remained up until the time she had to enter a hospice.Her last two days I spent sitting beside the bed holding her hand with my feelings alternating between ‘Don’t leave me’ and ‘Please take her now to end this suffering’.The staff were amazing allowing 6 of us to virtually camp in the lounges 24/7 for a week and no stinting on the tea and coffee in that time.Next week is the 4th anniversary and I’m dreading it.The black dog has already moved in.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Even holding hands was out for us for a very long time. It made all the difference when we got through that.
      My partner died at home, but having worked with the hospice, I can attest to how wonderful the staff are…and how many rules they break in order to care for those who are there, both family and patient.It was a privilege to be even the smallest part of that world.My late partner had been my friend since childhood. When he died, my first feeling was relief that he had gone before it got too much worse…his timing was perfect and allowed him to be himself until the last breath. Then th grief set in and wiped me out for a long time… when you have cared for someone through long illness, they become your world in ways you don’t even realise.
      It is eighteen years ago now, though, and I can simply look back and smile, glad for the life we shared. I will be thinking of you, David and wish I could give more than a virtual hug xxx

      Liked by 1 person

  2. barbtaub says:

    What a beautiful and moving post.You’ve touched my heart.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. You write so beautifully, Sue. I am sorry that you have suffered so much pain in your life, the loss of a partner and your son’s incident and subsequent recovery. Hopefully you have paid all your dues and the rest of you lifetime will be filled with joy.

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I do not see it that way, Robbie. I feel blessed instead to have known love in so many forms. Nor do I think karma works quite that way… I believe we are offered the journey the soul can learn from…and that too is a gift.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I agree about hands Sue.. a friend of us is an artist and over the years I have bought three of his charcoal drawings all depicting hands and they are all in our hallway as people come in the front door. I was with both my father and mother and holding their hands was an incredible experiences and I felt the life force leave them as a physical shift. I like to think that somewhere others who had gone before were reaching out and holding their hands and creating the link between this life and the next. Lovely post thank you. xx

    Like

  5. jenanita01 says:

    I am too full of emotion to comment, nothing seems adequate anyway… bless you all…

    Like

  6. Mary Smith says:

    A truly beautiful and touching post, Sue.

    Like

  7. Victo Dolore says:

    Oh how I love this post. You are right, that birth and death are sanitized and through it we have lost sight of the importance of touch, especially in the dying. It robs us of a certain richness of life.

    Like

  8. Victo Dolore says:

    Reblogged this on Behind the White Coat and commented:
    This is a wonderful post about the importance of touch in life and death. Please pop over and read it if you have not done so already.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Dalo 2013 says:

    You’ve expressed a feeling that tops all other ~ the human touch. The strength and sadness you write about in this post is the definition of richness in life. Beautifully written Sue, and the gifts that you give and share with those around you. It all begins with the beauty of touch. You also have introduced to me The Cathedral by Rodin, and this has now become my favorite sculpture – as I can now see so clearly the power of hands. Wishing you a fantastic springtime.

    Like

  10. tric says:

    Your post brought up so many memories and emotions.
    My mothers hands, which have worked so hard for close to 85 years are remarkably soft, even as a child I loved to stroke them and be held by them.
    I nursed my dad through Motor neurone disease. He could not reach out to touch us but we could him. I loved to hold his hands, even if they were clawed in spasm and often when I stroked his face I’d wipe away his tear which fell in response to my touch.
    I’ve nursed a very close friend in her final hours at home with her three young children. As she passed away they all lay about her,stroking her hair, her cheeks and holding her hands with their dad as they gave her permission to go.
    And finally there was young Daniel who passed away in his own bed after months away from home with his family in bed beside him. Even after he left the comfort they got laying there for as long as they wanted has sustained them since.
    Just as physical touch means so much so too do your words. This post has ‘touched’ me deeply today.
    I’m so sorry for your loss, but I’ve learned there is a bond in illness which carries long after our loved one leaves. In a sense we are privileged to have had the time to say goodbye.

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      That’s such a beautiful response, Tric. I too am sorry for your own losses, but I agree… the privilege of sharing such times creates both a bond and a living memory that becomes part of who you are. In that sense, at least, the loss of their presence in never absolute, but always rooted in love.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. You are not alone Sue, you are not alone. Well penned.

    Like

  12. I think this is one of the most emotionally, touching, and beautiful posts I have ever read.

    Like

  13. This one truly moved me, Sue. I never thought about how we use the sense of touch, feeling, in all our expressions of affection, even in our language. Beautiful thoughts here, so well expressed. You made my morning special. Thank you.

    Like

  14. Visiting from Victo’s blog, and I just wanted to say: how beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing.

    Like

  15. Lyn Horner says:

    Such intimate, beautiful thoughts on the power of touch! Thank you for sharing with us, Sue.

    Like

  16. adeleulnais says:

    A beautiful and tender article, Sue. I remember with my Auntie, who brought me up and who I called Mam, died. It was in the hospital and I had fallen asleep so I hadn’t been with her when she went. Under different circumstances the death of my mother was peaceful and my aunts had come over from Ireland. They washed her and brushed her hair, lit yellow candles and place the rosary I had given her from Monserat between her hands. My daughter and I were led in to say our goodbyes and left in peace. I wish I had argued for that for my auntie, but I was too young to be paid attention to.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Joanne Sisco says:

    I am visiting via Victo Dolore. This was such a beautiful post. Touch is so powerful and your beautiful words describe why.

    Like

  18. paulandruss says:

    Another lovely moving post Sue

    Like

  19. Being with someone, holding their hand at their death is one of the privileges few get to experience. When I worked at the hospital, there were times when a patient was near the point of death and in their own for one reason or another. One of the nursing staff nearly always would stay with them talking to them and holding their hand so they were not on their own.
    It must have been so difficult for you Sue, when you saw your partner take his last breath. For him though, it probably meant everything to him having you there, and afterwards too.

    How wonderful that your mum included you in your brother’s birth and you got to hold him straight away, that too is a special and privileged experience. 💖💖

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Nurses are almost always brilliant with patients alone and close to death…thankfully. I’ve seen some very special nurses in action.
      No, it was not a difficult death. He went with humour, his head pillowed gently on a toilet roll…and just as the cancer was beginning to get to a stage that would have taken ‘him’ away from both of us. He remained himself up to the end.
      And yes, a beautiful privilege to have helped deliver my little brother! ❤

      Liked by 2 people

  20. SO sorry for your loss, Sue. You’re right about touch. It can be a powerful, powerful thing. I, too, miss when the stages of grief were allowed to lap out slowly like ripples on water instead of how we’re thrust back to normalcy with a huge hole where our loved one’s been.

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  21. Widdershins says:

    I’m a hugger, can’t help it, but only came to it as an adult. My family wasn’t big on physical contact, stoic British working class one-and-all, so I had some conditioning to undo before I experienced the wonderfulness of giving and receiving hugs. 🙂

    Like

  22. Eliza Waters says:

    It is sad that so many yearn for the healing power of human touch, and so few receive it. No wonder we love babies and children, they haven’t developed the boundaries that separate us from one another. Even for an open hugger like myself, opportunities dwindle as I age, children grown and gone. One can find oneself down a long, lonely road, wondering how one got there.

    Like

  23. With you 100% on all this, Sue. Barriers can be broken down with touch, and comfort provided by it.

    Like

  24. Ali Isaac says:

    Oh god… floods, Sue, FLOODS! That’s what you’ve done to me with this piece of writing. Touch is so important. It’s communication, and when you have no other means of communicating, it can say so much. The parting between you and your husband broke my heart reading it. Here, people are buried within 3 days of dying. Its too soon. We have been told to expect Carys will die before us. We expect our children to outlive us, to bury us. And If she does leave us early, and we are at home, I know I will not be calling medics in a hurry. I’m holding on to her as long as I can. I think of the kind of suffering your husband must have had, the suffering and limitations Carys has, and I think it must be like being set free, unfettered. That can’t be a bad thing. Its the next phase of being, whatever that might be. I just can’t bear to think of her doing it all alone. In her physical life, she always needs someone, for all her needs. I hope there will be a lovely guide waiting for her, since I won’t be able to help her. Now. This comment became all about me, and not your beautiful post. Sorry about that. And as for Reiki, more people should try it, its a wonderful experience, and really helps with relaxation and managing pain.

    Like

    • Sue Vincent says:

      I write about my experience to hold up a mirror, no more.
      I cannot imagine losing a child, even though I’ve come close. I cannot imagine living with the knowledge of such a likelihood…though I know from my time with my partner that it makes every new day precious in a way that we don’t normally realise. I know my partner ws glad to go… he was ready. It had been a long road.
      I cannot see Carys passing alone. She lives in love and care and that is not going to change… nor will she be alone if she flies free.
      Hugs, Ali xxx

      Like

  25. Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    Sue describes saying “Goodbye” for the last time.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Jennie says:

    I rarely get the pleasure of reading something as tender and true, written perfectly, as this. Thank you for this story. It is magnificent.

    Like

  27. So touching, Sue. I’m sitting here all teary-eyed. Thank you for the graceful reflections, for sharing something so meaningful and personal. Exquisitely written and a beautiful reminder of the sacredness and power of touch. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  28. balroop2013 says:

    The poignancy of your reflections about the power of touch is vibrating within my heart Sue. I marvel at your skill of breathing life into your soulful words. Thank you so much for highlighting something we take for granted as youngsters but miss it as we move slowly towards our twilight years. Love and hugs dear friend.

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Ali Grimshaw says:

    What a tender and powerful reflection. This is something I want to remember and reflect on. Touch can not be replaced. Thank you.

    Like

  30. dgkaye says:

    Sue, this was a most heartfelt post in so many ways. A lovely tribute to your partner and so eloquent the words you used to demonstrate how sometimes the silence can grow, taking with it the freedom of reaching out to touch. You are a true warrior woman with what you’ve been through. It really resonated with me when you spoke about sometimes reaching over to your partner to check if he was breathing, because I’ve lived those moments several times with my own husband. Thank you for sharing your heart. ❤

    Like

  31. Pingback: Writing Links 3/27/17 – Where Genres Collide

  32. Erik says:

    You’ve given voice — simultaneously both raw and elegant — to realities too often left unspoken. And I see clearly throughout the comments the continued healing and release you’ve been able to offer your readers. What rare experiences to have had the burden and privilege of sharing with the people in your life, and rarer still to have been able to recreate them here in such a visceral way through words. I feel honored to have been allowed vicarious access to these excruciatingly personal life moments, Sue, even as you’ve invited me to reflect upon a few of my own.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Vincent says:

      Each life is personal and unique, but holds so many common threads of joy and grief as part of the human journey.You know well, from your own experience, Erik, that sharing that experience can be a healing gift for both yourself and others.

      Like

  33. Steph McCoy says:

    Echoing the sentiments of your other commenters, this is such a beautiful piece, Sue, as are many of the responses.

    Like

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