As we begin to anticipate eagerly the loosening of the restrictions that have bounded our lives for the past many weeks, I’ve been hankering most of all for resuming hugs with my grandchildren. All my friends who are blessed with being grandparents have been talking throughout the period of quarantine about their feelings of longing for the embrace of the kids.
It turns out that physical contact is a real need; it is vital for mental, emotional, and also physical health. Human beings are wired for contact. People who live alone — as I do since the death of my husband three and a half years ago — are starved for touch. An article that I read in “Healthline” makes clear that this deprivation doesn’t apply only to sensual touch — any and all positive touch is considered to be beneficial. Hot showers and rubbing your own feet can go only so far to relieve “skin hunger.”
In more than two months without physical contact with another person and in the environment of pervasive anxiety, my body has been releasing the stress hormone cortisol and has not enjoyed the release of oxytocin, sometimes called the love or cuddle hormone; its effects include increasing bonding and trust, which have been in short supply during this period of isolation. Thankfully, the two-dimensional social contacts enjoyed through Zoom meetings and FaceTime have countered the deprivation to some extent. But our bodies know that it’s not the same.
After about two weeks into the restrictions, a package that I hadn’t ordered arrived for me. My adult daughters had sent me an adorable stuffed animal, a Gund puppy with a sweet face and a soft body. They wanted me to have something to hug, and I’m not embarrassed to admit that this sweet little dog has found a place on the pillow next to mine.
The mandated social distance exacerbated a brief emergency that I experienced in the kitchen one evening shortly after Passover. Following several weeks of isolation, my youngest daughter thankfully had recovered from symptoms of covid-19. She had come into my house more than 72 hours after she had tested negative for the virus, and we were being scrupulous to maintain a physical separation between us. I was in the kitchen cutting a bagel, and I carelessly sliced deep into the index finger on my left hand. Blood was gushing. Struggling to rip open the paper wrapping of several Band-Aids and keeping my pulsing, wounded finger under a stream of running cold water, I could hardly manage to wrap it by myself. But there was no way that I could ask for and receive help from my daughter.
My options were limited, because I wouldn’t drive over to Holy Name Medical Center when hospital was overwhelmed with serious covid cases, and the nearby urgent care clinic had closed early on a Sunday evening. I had to do it myself, with advice on the phone from an AARP nurse, terrified that contact with another person could invite the disease. In emergency situations fear is especially palpable.
However, throughout the quiet weeks at home without physical contact, I’ve had the recurring feeling that something sustaining in my life clearly has been missing.
I’m becoming reconciled to the likelihood that some aspects of our earlier social life likely are gone forever. This springtime, most organizations are holding virtual galas on screen, so no handshakes or hugs are possible. But when these events do resume, perhaps by next fall or spring, people are going to hold back from the easy, warm welcomes of old, that involved physical touch. What will be the future of Israeli dance groups, square dancing, and choral singing, where people gather in close proximity? Will acquaintances who abstain from casual contact with people of the opposite sex hold back from supportive pats on the back and sweaty wedding dances with their friends of the same gender, understanding that danger could lurk again in droplets of perspiration? How sad it is that shaking the hand of a colleague will be perceived as a potential threat to well-being — yet these are probable lasting legacies of the coronavirus. And after weeks of being cognizant of the need to cultivate compassion, I will keep in mind that there are people near and far who aren’t able to look forward to the restoration of positive touch in their daily lives.
As summer approaches, we’ll bask in the comfort of cuddles with grandchildren once again, assuming that the kids will be trusting to join the embrace, after months of warnings to keep their distance. We’ll be able to enjoy the pleasures of a massage or a pedicure and having someone else wash our hair at the salon. Sitting close to friends and loved ones on the sofa while watching a movie and relaxing into a warm hug for several seconds are comforts too long denied that won’t be taken for granted for some time to come. The restoration of positive touch is one of life’s blessings, for which we will share words of gratitude with family and friends for having come through the pandemic more or less intact. We could celebrate the first hug of renewed contact by citing the morning blessing of “matir asurim,” thanking God for setting us free from captivity.