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.