Bathing the Dying: how to care for those experiencing grief and loss

bathing the dying

I work in for a hospice company as the Bereavement Coordinator. This job encompasses my training in both pastoral care marriage and family therapy. Wanna see a family go haywire? Just have a member die. I get to be there when things are falling apart. I get to be a peaceful presence in a less than peaceful environment. I love that.

Most people, when told what I do, reply with something like: “Wow, I could never do that. It would be too depressing.” So far, I’ve found it to be anything but depressing. To me, if feels like holy work. It’s an opportunity to bring the Spirit of Peace to a family negotiating one of the worst experiences of their lives. Now, I’ll admit, I’m still new at this, and thankfully, my agency doesn’t work with dying kids. That might push me past my ability to be a calming presence. But so far, it’s been good.

The other day we were working with a family who lived on the margins. They were poor people, in a downtown weekly motel. This kind of living is one step up from homelessness. Living like this does not endear you to other people and this family had rarely been treated with respect. I happened to open the door of their one-room home and come face to face with a holy moment. Our CNA was washing the hair of the dying woman. Her toothless wasted body was two days from death and yet our CNA was lovingly bathing her, gently washing her hair.

The beauty of the action stopped me in my tracks, and I finally backed out of the room with the image seared onto my corneas like a Michelangelo painting. Similar images from the life of Christ flooded my vision: The prostitute who anointed Jesus with the tools of her trade: her tears, her perfume, her hair. There was Jesus’ friend, Mary of Bethany, who unknowingly anointed his body for burial with her gift of costly perfume. There were Joseph and Nicodemus, who prepared his body for burial. And finally, the women who went to prepare his body with spices, after the Sabbath, and found him missing.

The Jews knew about preparing a body for burial; they were not afraid of it, but saw it as a loving and holy act, a precious responsibility. The washing of the dead is a ritual of love that most of us, unless we work in a funeral home, are totally unfamiliar with. But in many Jewish circles, it is still done. The family prepares the body after death in a ritual called Tahara. The body is washed and wrapped in a plain white cloth, so there will be no attachment to earthly things and no stigma for the poor. For the same reason, the casket is plain, and also must biodegrade so the body can go back into the earth. Then the family and their friends sit “Shiva” for a week of mourning and the bereaved are not expected to attend social events for a year. What wonderful rituals these are to honor the loss of a loved one.

We non-Jews have lost something significant in these rituals. For us, death has become sterilized. We die and our body is removed by men in black suits that come from a mortuary – looking somber. Or worse, if someone dies unexpectedly, like my mother did, and an ambulance is called, a death room can look more like a crime scene with fire trucks, police, flashing lights, and a coroner. We have funerals or memorial services that are over in an hour. If we are lucky, friends bring us food. But after a week or two we are left alone with our sorrow.

Recently I sat with a man whose wife, his love of sixty years, was dying. Sixty years! How is he supposed to recover from that? He can’t. He won’t. We shouldn’t expect him to. But we can be there to listen to his rage at her loss, to honor his tears, to hear the stories of their wonderful life together. We can be there to bathe the dead, to open a holy space for the Spirit of Peace to come in.

In what ways have you been able to bathe the dying? How has someone bathed you in your times of grief?

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6 Comments

  1. It’s been more than 35 years since my mom died, and I’m still grateful to an aunt who offered to fix her hair for her funeral and burial.

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  2. I was at the bedside of both my Mom and aunt when they died. I sat at Mom’s beside for two weeks in a chair and held her hand,. She couldn’t speak. I spoke to her from time to time. When she died I sang the Gloria as promised, in the middle of the night with only the two of us there in her room. This was all during the two weeks before and after Christmas. And we had the complication of family chaos. Both were cremated so there was only the time before death to be in attendance.

    My aunt and I had some pretty frank discussions. She wanted everything managed and was very specific. We rode together to the hospital for her final visit there. I made the final decision to remove life support –which she did not want. I watched (with Steve and Curtis) as her pace maker slowed and they finally called the time of death. I did everything she asked for with her property, taxes etc. which were all so important to her. (She had even given me the name of her tax person and the day of the appointment – and I kept the appointment for her!) Her attendance was of a different kind but I so respected her for being strong in her beliefs of what was important to her.

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    • Julie, how wonderful that they both had you!

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  3. Worked in hospice house as certified hospice assistant. I remember.

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    • Bonnie, it reminds me of what mother Theresa did. Is an asset like a CNA? Did you wash them? What a loving thing to do.

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