Though I had been keeping track of my mother’s weight and vital signs like some people analyze the statistics of their fantasy football players, I was still unprepared when I saw my mother’s emaciated body in person. How much weight could one lose in a month?
A lot, when one is in so much pain they can only tolerate liquid nutrition.
And the weight kept dropping off of her, at a rate of about a pound a day. She capped out at 90 pounds before she was bedridden and the home hospice nurses switched to measuring her upper arm circumference.
Still, those scrawny arms would quickly wrap around the hospice nurse for as long as she had the strength.
My mom also suffered from osteoporosis and was deemed a fall risk because of the strong pain medications she was taking. She would cry out when I or the hospice nurses would try to move her in bed.
I proceeded to treat my mother as a Ming vase or some other precious work of art.
What I learned was that my mother, though weakened and actively dying, needed the physical expression of love more than ever.
I remember cringing when one of my mother’s caregivers came by to visit and gave Mom a big bear hug. I imagined shattered bones but instead, Mom’s spirits were lifted, and her body wasn’t any more damaged than it already was by disease.
Some people would prefer to die quietly, without a parade of family and friends paying last respects. Others, like my mother, want to soak up affection and enjoy the company of people for as long as possible.
Instead of tiptoeing around and whispering, people like my mother want to remain a part of life as long as they are living. They don’t want people to be afraid to touch them or be in the same room as them, even if they cannot interact.
My mother accepted help from me when she knew she needed it, and was grateful for it, but there was no need for me to build a protective bubble around her. Death was coming, that was certain; instead of sheltering, I should have been augmenting her last days with as much love as I could muster.
Mom believed that “hugs were healing” and would eagerly accept an embrace from anyone who she was fond of, from the grocery store clerk to her only child. Whenever I would visit, the first and last thing I received from my mom was a big hug.
As an introvert, the idea of hugging virtual strangers is a bit off-putting, but watching my mother interact so affectionately within her community proved to me that there are many people out there who welcome a warm and loving exchange. In times that seem to be filled with such hatred towards one another, my mother’s dedication to hugging was almost a novelty. Such a natural act for her made the world a better place.
How silly of me to think that something as innocuous as a hug could ever hurt her.
The science community agrees in part with the feel-good benefits of hugging. According to the National Institutes of Health, preliminary studies showed that hugging and other forms of human affection, such as holding hands, can increase the levels of oxytocin, which can improve mood and reduce anxiety. Subsequent studies have suggested that increased oxytocin levels may also be connected to undesirable traits like envy and deception. Don’t go hugging strangers on the street without their permission for an oxytocin boost; instead, concentrate on the special people in your life. Do you tell them and show them how much you love and appreciate them as often as they deserve?
As your loved ones near the end of their journey in this world, this exchange of love becomes even more important.
Hugs and their healing power are limited of course; all of the hugs in the world couldn’t stop Mom’s cancer from returning. But the dying are not museum pieces. They are flesh and blood with hearts that still feel love, up until their very last beat.
Joy Johnston is an Atlanta-based digital journalist who began The Memories Project blog in 2012 after her father died of Alzheimer’s. Her essays have appeared in best-selling anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer’s & Other Dementias.