Holding: Grasping, Accompanying, and Letting Go

from the Desk of Kate

Dear Friends,

Almost all of my friends, at this stage in life, have had to come to terms with a loved one in care. It may be short term care (hospitalization, rehab), long term care (nursing home), or perhaps life-long and permanent care. In thinking about care for another, I came across a wonderful essay by Hidle Lindemann (“Holding One Another (Well, Wrongly, Clumsily) in a Time of Dementia” found in Cognitive Disability and its Challenge to Moral Philosophy) where she introduces us to the concept of “holding another person:

There are times when all of us need to be help in our identities, even after we are old enough to do much of this work for ourselves. Indeed, some identities require others to hold us in them continually: I can’t be your wife if you stop being my husband, for example.

It occurred to me, reading this essay, that when we speak of care, we are often speaking of “holding” another. As I have cared for my family and they for me, I consider the different “types” of holding we have undergone:

  • Holding as Grasping. Sometimes we grasp because we feel the other person slipping away. Grasping can be morally good or morally bad. “Good” grasping may be, for example, the safety net of catching your friends when they fall, of not allowing them to hit rock-bottom. There is a snapping back from the precipice. Grasping is holding in an active sense. My dear friend, I want to hold you here for a moment and remind you who you are, how valuable you are, how loved you are. But, I can only “hold you here” for a moment. People are not static, they are dynamic living beings. Grasp and hold too long and it becomes “bad” grasping. “Bad” grasping may be, for example, reducing the subject to an object such as “mine” or “you are nothing without me.”
  • Holding as Accompanying. Sometimes when we care we hold on through accompanying. “Good” accompaniment may be, for example, the father who runs along side as his son rides a bike for a first time. Or the sister who sits by the bedside of her ailing sibling recounting the life narrative of the one in bed. Accompanying the person with dementia may be validating memories of a time long ago. Or for someone perhaps living with an altered reality of steroids, helping the person discern what is real and what is imagined. “Bad” accompaniment may be treating the fantasy as a reality (for example, is the doll a baby? and other case examples used in moral debates re dementia). Or “bad” accompanying may be, as Lindemann proposes, recounting the person as you wish he is rather than how he actually is. Accompaniment is temporary. I cannot go everywhere with you. And even if you are with me forever, we are not interchangeable.  To get it right, accompanying is holding with an open hand not a closed fist.
  • Holding and Letting Go. Part of holding a subject/object is, necessarily, letting go. Personally, I acknowledge that I find this to be hardest. I come from a family that says “goodbye” at least three times on the phone before hanging up. Wanting just one more moment with a loved one. Wanting to prevent anything painful coming to your teenager. Wanting to give security and prevent risk. We want to hold to be sure, to be certain, to be safe, to control the outcome. But ultimately we have to let go. We want to grasp and hold when we know we need to let go, but please just one more minute. And sometimes, more often than I like to admit, letting go breaks our heart. Letting go  as your child rides the school bus for the first time. Or letting go when you pack him up for college. Or letting go when the father walks his daughter down the aisle,places her hand in the hand of another. Or, in the hospital, when the machines go silent and the lights go out — for the final time. Goodbye for now, my love.

I am surely not the only woman who cries every time I see the Pieta. (image Wikimedia Commons). On permanent holding, the one place I can and will hold you forever, is my heart. <3, you are always with me.


Yours in community,


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