How Can You Care for a Loved One Immediately after Death? An Interview with Susan Oppie, Part Two

One Washcloth offers a simple, moving way for the bereaved to care for one who has died

Today in the second part of a two-part interview, SevenPonds speaks with Susan Oppie of One Washcloth. Susan has been in the medical field for over 19 years and has worked as everything from a Home Health Aide for the Visiting Nurse Association of Boston to working extensively in hospice. Together with a group of two other women, Susan launched One Washcloth, which creates beautiful, simple washcloths for the bereaved to wash and care for their dead with. Their gesture is simple, but the message, particularly in the words of Susan, is profound: “The majority of people in our society are not aware of their rights regarding caring for the dead. The mission of One Washcloth is to reintroduce this ancient art in a simple, nonthreatening way.”

Susan Oppie One Washcloth

Susan Oppie
(Credit: Susan Oppie)

MaryFrances: What role can the washcloths of One Washcloth play in the grieving process?

Susan: Again, I’d have to go back to the simple use of it, wiping the hands or face of a loved one. It’s a very smooth entry into the grieving process, much smoother than stepping away from the body of a loved one and not touching it — creating that distance.

MaryFrances: Could you tell me more about the washcloths? How have they been received in the community?

Susan: Well it’s not a very hard sell for a nurse to hand someone a washcloth (laughs), and I think it is, again, almost instinctual. The instructions on the washcloths are very minimal. They say: “This cloth is a gift. Please use it to care for your loved one who has died as a final act of love. You may use it to gently wash your loved one’s face, hands and body as you would have in life. Follow your instincts, there is no “right way”, there is no rush. You may keep it as a reminder of the tender care you gave at the end,” and that’s pretty much it.

You’ll notice we don’t say, “scrub down XYZ…” because it’s really about empowering the individual. It makes them feel more involved in a sad situation. That involvement is a kind of power and strength to give to someone in that time, and it’s something that up until the recent “death movement” was disappearing in our culture in America.

“Follow your instincts, there is no “right way”, there is no rush.”

— Susan Oppie

MaryFrances: What are the most popular questions people are raising about the washcloths?

Susan: One concern that came up from a woman in England, who has expressed great support for us, was concern about spreading disease. It’s a very real concern. But you just follow the same precautions that you would if that person were alive. If that person was in an isolation room

MaryFrances: Any thoughts on the funeral industry today?

Susan: The history of caring for loved ones in this country brings us back to the importance of community and family in caring for someone who has died. Of course that changed with the rise of the funeral industry. It’s scary.

SB CA, Santa Barbara, One Washcloth, Susan Oppie, California coastline

One Washcloth products are made in Santa Barbara, CA, USA

One thing I appreciate about home funeral pioneers is that we say we have to step through that doorway of fear. That moment when you walk into a room to see your loved one, dead, and let it become a natural thing. But you have to take that courageous step. It’s the same principle with the washcloth, a simple step and a basic gesture.

MaryFrances: Who do you think would benefit from One Washcloth’s product in particular?

Susan: Well we just launched our website in January, so we’re working on getting more and more feedback, but I would say that it’s beneficial for parents whose children have died. They can continue to spend time with them, to care for them.

MaryFrancs: Do you have any experiences with clients that impacted you that you would like to share?

Susan: I remember one group of adult women in particular. They took on the task of bathing their mother and caring for her. They shared their tears, stories and laughter and it was beautiful. They really grew from that experience.

Another story from Portland comes to mind, in which a young man had been killed. His friends — all of them young men — really stepped up to the plate to care for him. To see these young men take on a role that has, at least historically, been largely devoted to women was so moving.

“…a young man had been killed. His friends — all of them young men — really stepped up to the plate to care for him.”

— Susan Oppie

Susan Oppie, Susan Oppie RN, One Washcloth, Washcloth for dead, caring for the dead, green funeral

Credit: One Washcloth

MaryFrances: Especially because “nurturing” isn’t always a word we see associated with men in the media.

Susan: Exactly. I could see in their faces that they needed to do this, and the washcloth became a valuable tool for them to connect with that side of themselves.

MaryFrances: What’s next for One Washcloth?

Susan: We really want to get into hospitals where death is such a constant. Staff and people coming into the hospital need to have some sort of way to express tenderness and emotion and I think our washcloths can help.

I mean, obviously we don’t “own” washcloths all over the world (laughs). We merely want to show that it’s an easy thing people can do for themselves. We want them to pick up that cloth, and let go of some degree of fear they have with death.

MaryFrances: Thank you, Susan.

Susan: Thank you!

Read part one of our interview with Susan Oppie here. For more information on the washcloths of One Washcloth, click here.

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