If you had ever met my mother she would have hugged you, and in such a way that you would possibly have needed an appointment with an osteopath afterwards. Whenever my brother and I said goodbye to her, she would grab hold of us and prevent us from leaving. My father, in contrast, rarely touched us. We had no doubt that he loved us, but he was less tactile. I remember as a child, feeling remarkably special as he held my hand and took me to school.
In the gospels we see two different reactions to Jesus when he appears after his Resurrection. Mary Magdalene reacts as my mother would; she gets hold of Jesus so tightly, that he asks her to let him go (John 20: 11-18). When the disciples see the resurrected Jesus, they all hold back, possibly in shock. It is Jesus who invites Thomas to touch him (John 20: 24-29).
Touch is an individual option and preference. When my mother and father were dying we respected their personalities and choices. As we kept vigil at my mother’s bedside, we repeatedly hugged her. When my father was dying both my brother and I asked Dad if he wanted us to hold his hand. We were reminded of being walked to school and of feeling special when he agreed we could.
In hospice, I often talk to relatives about the choice of touch. Above all, I do not want the less tactile patient or relative to feel guilty if holding a hand or being caressed and hugged is not natural. I prefer that everyone feels safe, and that they are allowed to continue to be as they are.
Yet, having written all that, I give exception to God; for he holds us before we are born (Jeremiah 1:5), and hugs us when we return to him (Luke 15: 11-32). How does the Father touch us during our lives if he is such an expert at the beginning and end of our earthly existence? At Baptism he gently caresses our heads with water, at Communion we hold him as he touches us, and at Confirmation and the Anointing of the Sick it is through the action of anointing and laying on of hands that his touch reminds us we are special and unique in his eyes.
Please pray for the patients, staff, volunteers and Sisters of St Joseph’s Hospice.