By Cathy Anthofer-Fialon
It is 2:46 am. Yes, I’m awake. Our four-year-old grandson just called out for me. He woke up and needed to use the bathroom. A dark, quiet house in the middle of the night can feel scary to a four-year-old. He called. I came to help. Once safely tucked back into bed he looked up at me and asked, “Grandmom, will you hold my hand?” Of course I extended my open hand, he clutched it, rolled over, and fell back to sleep.
Paul and I have been quiet these first weeks of 2020 on Grandfamily Today social media. Paul’s mom left this world January 5, 2020. She started with Hospice on November 22, 2020, after battling the impacts of unsuccessful chemo and radiation. Her one request was to stay in her own home. Paul and I made that happen. She grew up in an era and in a family where modesty was the practice and a source of pride. She would often tell me, proudly, how all of her years raising her sons they never once even saw her in a nightgown. Modesty was very important to her. I became her daily caregiver so she could stay in her own home and maintain her dignity. We already had a close relationship, a special friendship and understanding, but it strengthened her last months with us. As she grew weaker I would see her in the morning after Paul and I put our grandson on the bus and before I went to work. I spent my lunch hours checking on her, making her soup, making her bed, and would stop by after work to clean her apartment, wash dishes, and visit before rushing home to make dinner. Paul dutifully greeted our grandson every afternoon after school, so I could be with “Mom”.
On Friday, January 6, 2020, Mom’s nurse and Certified Nursing Assistant stopped in to check on her and help her bathe. For the first time she could no longer get out of bed. She had become too weak to stand. The nurse called me, and I rushed over. Paul and I traded shifts to be with her that afternoon. Cognitively she was sharp as a tack. She then asked me to spend the night with her. Of course I said yes. She sent Paul home knowing someone needed to be there. After he left, I offered her soup, but she said she wasn’t hungry. She then asked, “Will you hold my hand?” She reached her thin, shaking hand across the sheets open palmed, and I grasped it. She stayed awake all night as I held her hand, telling me stories spanning her entire life. At one point she asked me what time it was. I told her it was after 1 am, and she asked, “So it’s no longer January 4?” I told her no, that it was now January 5. She smiled and told me she was glad. It was no longer her oldest son’s birthday. He lived in California. He turned 65 January 4 in California. She had insisted he not make the trip to see her wanting him to remember her from their visit earlier when she was healthy.
I continued to hold her hand through the night, and she continued to talk. Around 6 am she told me she was tired and wanted to close her eyes to get some rest. She closed her eyes, fell asleep, and never woke up again.
What happens when we hold someone’s hand? We know through the good work of The Center of the Developing Child Harvard and their paper, Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundation of Resilience Working Paper No. 13 (2015), the most important factor in building resilience and mitigating the negative impacts of adversity and trauma is one, positive, adult relationship. The paper notes, “The capabilities that underlie resilience can be strengthened at any age” (page 7). This line is significant and illustrates how a positive, adult, relationship is important throughout a lifetime. Can holding someone’s hand build resilience? According to a Huffpost article, The Science Behind the Profound Power of Holding Hands, A Touching Tribute (2016, May31), it can. The article cites psychologist, Alberto Gallace and Charles Spence’s Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews journal article that touch is “our most fundamental means of contact with the external world” and it is “vital to human development and life”. Many studies have chronicled how human touch signals the brain to release Oxytocin which “increases feelings of trust, generosity and compassion and decreases feelings of fear and anxiety.” The Huffpost article continues with work from Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami/Miller School of Medicine, “When the fingers are interlaced and someone is holding your hand, they’re stimulating pressure receptors [that trigger] what’s called vagal activity.” Field continues, “There’s pressure in the touch, the heart rate goes down, the blood pressure goes down, and you’re put in a relaxed state. When people interlace their fingers, they get more pressure stimulation”. Essentially holding someone’s hand allows the brain to create new, healthy pathways, different than the fight, flight, freeze pathways adversity and trauma can create.
“Will you hold my hand?” Yes, I will.