Until the pandemic started, I never realized how many times hugs went on without notice—hugs hello, hugs goodbye, congratulatory hugs, condolence hugs, just-because hugs. Full disclosure, I’m Italian, so hugs are my currency. But now, as the fearful months of COVID-19 plod on and on, it has become a source of great frustration and sadness not to be able to hug loved ones—or anyone.
It dawned on me the other day, when my niece left without even a pause where a hug would typically be, that we’ve gotten used to not hugging. That is a terribly disheartening casualty of the coronavirus. It has conditioned us to eschew physical touch, to trade a kiss on the cheek for a wave of the hand, or worse, for nothing at all. My guess is that this nothing at all is contributing to the depression being experienced by almost everyone during the pandemic.
Humans need to express love and feel it in return.
A hug provides us with an expression that’s warmer than a handshake but less intimate than a kiss. It gives us a nonverbal way to say so many different things—I love you, I like you, I missed you, hello, goodbye, congratulations, I’m sorry. Hugging isn’t commonly done in many Asian cultures. In a world where we now know the reality of a pandemic, it could be that Americans will have to consider following suit.
But it would feel strange and sad. Hugging may not be uniquely American, but in this time of turmoil it is one positive gesture we hold in common.
It’s been a sobering eight months and counting since I was able to properly hug my son—not the graze of a shoulder, not a virtual hug—but a full embrace, where my arms go all the way around him and there’s a long pause that tells him exactly how much I love him. There’s no moment that equates to this embrace, especially when your children aren’t babies anymore. You can’t just pick them up and kiss their little foreheads for no reason at all. The physical contact now is occasional and fleeting.
Even though he’s grown, my son’s hugs mean more to me now than they ever have. In this upside-down year, I was diagnosed with cancer, then was mercifully freed from it. But that trauma heightened my awareness of how short life is, and how the number of total embraces we’ll have with loved ones is finite. And now, the pandemic has brought a strange suspension of physical love that threatens to take many of those hugs away from us.
It’s not just familial love that is suffering during this time of strife. My heart aches for those friends who live alone—who don’t have anyone in their COVID bubbles. One friend mentioned to me the other day that she had not felt human touch in seven months. That made me desperately want to hug her. But COVID keeps that love at bay as well. We can’t. We simply can’t behave the way we did before. Not yet. Bypassing the physical touch we took for granted pre-pandemic is the new gesture of caring. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
As I’ve told my son, beware. When the fog of this virus is lifted, when we’re free to hold each other with a gratefulness and appreciation that we never did before, I am going to give him 32 hugs—the total of the average number of monthly hugs we’ve missed since the pandemic began. And they won’t be passing hugs. They’ll be bear hugs, the kind you hold for several minutes. The kind that tells the other person just how much you love them.
Dawn Gerber is a freelance writer/editor and author of two published children’s trade books. She has worked in advertising, publishing, and tech. Dawn and her husband, Joel, play bocce and spoil two pups as she waits (im)patiently to hug her son. Find her on Instagram at @dgerber104.