Galen’s Bath

I wasn’t sure I’d be strong enough to do it.

After all, I knew only one other person who had, and that was my mother. She learned of the idea while taking a graduate class on human relationships, and it seemed like a perfectly natural—although uncommon—thing to do. Later, when my grandmother was living with my parents during the final month of her life, my mother told the hospice nurse she wanted to wash my grandmother’s body after she died. The hospice nurse was a bit surprised, but supportive. Even though hospice mentions bathing the body as an option, no family had ever actually done so. Our family, though, has a long history of doing the uncommon thing, and this was no exception.

My mother has shared the story of that memorable bath many times since.

Mom and her older sister gently wiped my grandmother with washcloths dipped in warm water, rubbed lotion on her skin, and washed and styled her hair. They handled her body with the same reverence and love of parents giving a newborn their first bath. They reminisced over childhood memories and reflected that Grandma would now be with her beloved husband again. When they were finished, the sisters invited their husbands to come in and say a toast, and everyone marveled at the sun glistening off the snow on that Christmas Eve day. They all remarked on how peaceful and natural it felt. And finally, they called the funeral home to let them know Grandma was ready.

Sixteen years later, it was my turn. I did not feel the quiet confidence my mom had shown years ago, that she could offer this last gesture of love. I held little hope that I would feel any sense of peace, or that it would come naturally…but I knew I had to try.

Two days after our son died, my husband and I drove to the funeral home. We had asked each of our closest friends to be there for moral support, to say prayers, or to simply send us strength and positive energy. I clung to my husband’s arm as the funeral director led us to a back door, down a hallway, to a room where Galen’s body was waiting.

I was afraid. This was not an expected death. Galen had taken his own life, and I had found him in his bedroom several hours later. The image was burned in my memory, and I feared he would still look like he did that day.

My husband, a former police officer, had seen a few dead bodies in his work. He gently offered reassurance that bodies relax after a while, and Galen would probably look better.

As we prepared to go in, I reminded myself that I could change my mind at any time; this was not an obligation but a choice. Yet when the door opened and I saw my son’s face, I knew instantly that I could do this. The swelling and discoloration of his face had subsided, and my mothering instinct overpowered any lingering uncertainty.

The funeral director showed us how the water worked, set the temperature to warm, and told us he would be just down the hall. Then the three of us were alone.

I caressed Galen’s cheek, stroked his hair, and held his hand. We began by running warm water over his body, then each took a washcloth to gently bathe our son. Tears flowed as we passed the bar of soap back and forth. We tried to offer Galen a semblance of modesty by having my husband wash between his legs, since at 15 years old, Galen was already almost fully grown.

I washed his hair with the Johnson’s Baby Shampoo I’d brought from home. The scent reminded me of when he was a newborn and I was so full of confidence. I gently scolded my sweet boy for doing this incomprehensible thing. “Oh, Galen, this was not the answer. This was not the solution,” I said quietly.

Finally, we swaddled his body in a simple cotton shroud, working together to gently rock Galen from side to side, wrapping the fabric under him. We paused for a few moments to decide on shrouding his face, or not. The thought of never seeing his face again was almost too much to bear, so we chose to leave his face uncovered.

The funeral director helped us transfer Galen’s body into the coffin, then left us alone to say goodbye. We told Galen we loved him, kissed his cheek, said a prayer, and eventually closed the lid. Before we put the lid on the coffin, we read a prayer for the departed from the Baha’i writings, and I told Galen I loved him.

We emerged into the arms of our friends, who had waited so patiently. They said we seemed transformed from when we walked in a few hours before.

And indeed, we were.

The constriction in my chest had loosened a little and I could take a deep breath for the first time in days. And even though the river of grief continued to roil around us during Galen’s bath, we had momentarily found our footing in the extraordinary task of two parents caring for their child. It gave me hope that we were grounded enough to find our way forward.

About the Author | Beth Halleck

Beth Halleck is full of unwritten stories about living in pre-revolutionary Iran, choosing home-births, and serving as a birth and death doula, Beth hopes to inspire others by sharing her unusual life journey. In her free time she knits and does crosswords in pen (to keep track of her mistakes.) She resides in southeastern Minnesota with her husband and youngest child.

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20 comments to "Galen’s Bath"

  • Caroline

    The courage necessary to make this choice, when every cell in our body wants to deny the reality of loss, is unmeasurable. It easy to think that I could never do that. Never have the strength to walk through the doors. Thank you, both parents, for sharing the experience. For giving to others the gift that through your experience we are able to imagine doing the same. Truly special. Thank you.

  • Janetta McCoy

    This essay is beautiful. Thank you for sharing the experience. I am so fortunate to know your “uncommon family”.

    • Beth

      Dearest Janetta. Thank you for your kind words. You have walked part of that uncommon journey with us, and a precious to our family.  Blessings.

  • Brenda

    Beth, this is deeply moving and intimate. Gratitude for you sharing the vulnerable experience with us all and supporting all of our communities to expand our love and sacredness as our beloveds transition. xoxoxoxo

    • Beth

      Sweet Brenda. From birth to death, the journey is sacred. Thank you for bearing witness to that as well.  Blessings.

  • Ann Renk

    How beautifully you articulate through your writing, Beth. Sharing Galen’s Bath and the significance of you and Carew lovingly caring for him is so moving. Much love and prayers to you and your family. I know it has been a long time since sharing childcare through our Babysitting Coop days.

    • Beth

      Ann, you and the rest of our community “showed up” in so many ways, and created a safe space for our family to grieve. Thank you.

  • Karen

    This was so beautiful❤️
    I carry your family in my heart forever because I spent three years in a classroom with Galen. He was the kid with the biggest smile and largest books possible in his lap as he sat in the reading chair probably avoiding other assigned work but devouring his books. Thank you for sharing this beautiful piece of writing❤️

    • Beth

      Dearest Karen. You and Kristi have such a gift of seeing what each child needs, and making space for that. Galen felt safe and cared for in your classroom. Thank you for being part of our “village.”  Blessings.

  • Becky Rice

    What a tender, intimate story to share. I was drawn in – with you in the room as you lovingly prepared Galen’s earthly temple. Thank you for sharing it with us. Love to you💜

    • Beth

      Sweet Becky. I know you understand the deeper reasons for this choice. The wisdom and blessings of which only became apparent through faith. Hopefully our story gives others the courage to choose this as well. Thank you.

  • Debi

    This is an amazing story and my uterus tugged while reading it; I felt that mother/love pain and longing
    What a beautiful tribute to your son and a way for both of you to share your grief
    Thank you for sharing

    • Beth

      Dearest Debi. I am so grateful we were both strong enough to bathe Galen. It gave us one last, tangible way to parent him together. Love to you.

  • Bill S.

    I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing your experience thru the essay.

  • Jill Bradley

    As a mother it is inconceivable that my child would die before me. Within your words I saw a glimpse in to your grief at the loss of Galen. Such a powerful experience to gently bathe your son with love and then release him to the heavens forever. Thank you for sharing and enlightening us with an option that may bring healing and peace upon the death of a loved one.

    • Beth

      Dearest Jill. We cannot choose something if we don’t even know the choice exists. Hopefully I told the story gently enough that it can reach the people who need to hear it. Thank you for listening with such heartfelt compassion.  Blessings.

  • Loveta

    thank you for this tender loving expression around your loss. Had i know,’how to’ when my son took his life, I’m sure this would have made a difference in my grieving heart. No words.

    • Beth

      I’m very sorry you lost your son to suicide as well. We don’t know what we don’t know, but sharing our stories helps us learn. Blessings.