Monday, September 16, 2013

Comforting Without Words:The Power of Touch

In 1998 when my father was dying in a hospital in London, we all tiptoed round him, sat close, but not too close and observed him drifting in and out of sleep. 

Benjy, my first-born, who was five years old at the time, came into my father's room to say goodbye. He walked to the end of my father's bed  and in a clear voice asked him very simply, 

"Grandpa, are you going to die?" To which my father answered, as the adults around him teared up,

"Yes. I think I am." 

Benjy responded without hesitation, 

"Well can I come and hold your hand?" 

Benjy then took up residence next to my father, took hold of his jaundiced hand, smiled at him and said nothing more.

On Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement), the synagogue service includes the recitation of a memorial prayer for those close relatives we have loved and lost. Last Saturday, as these memorial prayers began, emotions were palpable. Certainly close to where I was standing were adults and children mourning the deaths of their parents, spouses, siblings and friends. Feelings were raw, as feelings can be after a few short months or after even more than 30 years since that loss.

We were also mourning what we had lost because of who we had lost. We were mourning the lost opportunities for our loved ones to share graduations and weddings and grandchildren. Memories we have experienced or will do, without them being physically present.

 Each person was wrapped in their own private grief. Each a little island of memories, sadness and perhaps regret. 

What can you say that is of comfort at these times? What can you do to make each person's agony a little less lonely? 

An answer to this question is what Benjy taught me at my father's bedside. 

The feel of the warmth of another human-being, beside you, quiet and alert can provide tremendous comfort, without them uttering a word.

You can give the gift of being close by, present and aware. For someone who is in emotional pain, you can put your hand over their hand, your arm around their shoulders and listen and nod or sit quietly and say nothing at all. 

There is no need for words, except perhaps to ask permission to lean in and connect through touch.

The act of reaching across the invisible gap, looking into someone's eyes and touching their arm can say more than any words can express. 

Today as we have heard about yet another senseless shooting, this time at the Navy Yard in Washington DC, the Nation's Capital, a sense of the lack of control in our lives comes bubbling to the surface. This is when I think human connection through touch becomes one of the greatest comforts we can give and receive.

This is a time to step away from our computers and laptops and cell phones and to physically make contact with people we care about. 

When we hug our children, spouses, parents, friends, neighbors and co-workers we reiterate that human connection. A touch of love and comfort is what we all crave at emotionally fragile moments. 

A touch reminds us that there is so much  kindness and compassion that we can give each other by being present. Which in turn gives us strength and courage to continue to face difficult times ahead. 

Thank you Benjy.

Free hugs available all this week and beyond -


You might also find comfort in these posts:-

Memories Not For Sale

5 Ways to Bring Comfort in Times of Grief or Distress

Moving From Hurt to Healing:How 1 Step Back Can Take You 2 Steps Forward

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  1. Beautiful as always Gilly. And thanks for the glimpse into the passing of your father. I remember him so well with fondness and admiration.

    Shana Tova


    1. Thanks James. I really appreciate your comment about my Dad. Living away from the UK means that no one here can say they remember him. You filled a gap with your kindness.

  2. Gilly, thank you for this.

    Sometimes children aren't so tied up in emotions and can just do or say what should be done or said.

    At the end of my Mum's life we had a few horrible weeks, but they were also the best weeks of my life in some ways. Those hugs we shared were just so special and I will never forget them. We didn't say much....there was nothing much to say, but the hugs, the looks and the hand holding were so special.

    I learned a lot from that time of my life. Before then, I always wondered what do you say to someone who was so ill, or to someone who had just lost a close relative. But I learned that sometimes there just are no words. But touch is so important.

    Lovely post Gilly, and beautifully put,

    1. Very true. My father was very jaundiced and we were worried that our little boys would be shocked to see him that way. But they were totally unfazed and taught me a lot about how to behave around someone who is at their end of life. Now I tell my boys that at the end of my life i want them to climb on the bed and hug me tight!!
      I'm glad that hugs brought comfort to your Mom and yourself at the end of her life.

  3. So beautiful and so very true. I'm always shocked at how much distance there is between sick/dying individuals and family members - just from the limited experience I have had. Kids know more than we give them credit for. :)

    1. Thank you! Yes kids are intuitive and wise. We just have to remember to stop and listen to them without multitasking!
      ( like I am often doing.....) Gilly