This blog post comes to you courtesy of my dear friend Absinthia, who suffered an unexpected death of her partner in July. She's been blogging about her grieving and healing process, and I asked her to write about the role platonic touch has played as she struggles with loss. Her words are raw, powerful and eloquent. If you want to read more about her journey with death, I highly recommend her blog.
When the unimaginable happened, it was the welcome home I received that set me up for a healthy, loving period of mourning.
Three weeks into my bucket-list vacation with my beautiful young teenage daughters, we got a phone call in our hotel room in Venice that changed everything. In just five days, my boyfriend Rupert was supposed to be boarding a plane to meet us in Greece; instead, he had been killed in a motorcycle accident less than two miles from home.
I may have forgotten how I spent the following weeks, but I will never forget that traumatic night, alone with my children in a hotel 5,000 miles from home. I somehow pulled myself and my children off the floor, and we held each other, weeping and wailing. I talked with friends and my mom, crying and making arrangements to get home. At the advice of a friend more well versed in sudden death than she should be at our age, I took a hot bath because I couldn’t stop shaking from the shock. I held my younger daughter as she fell asleep; she was too tired to stay awake but too shocked and sad and crying too hard to fall asleep on her own. My older daughter offered to take a year off school so she could take care of me. I pulled her into my arms and let her know that was not her job.
I just wanted to crawl through my laptop where my friends were talking to me and crying. I wanted to be held.
The next afternoon, we were on a plane home. Venice to Paris to San Francisco. Our trip was cut short by two weeks. It was a long day, but the girls and I had each other. We were always within arm’s reach of each other. We used our remaining Euros to buy gifts for our friends at Charles De Gaulle during our layover, and we left the bag somewhere in the terminal. We weren’t making our way to meet up with Rupert in Greece, and our hearts were broken. We were lost and nothing made sense. I pulled my younger daughter onto my lap and held my older daughter’s hand. They stroked my hair and kissed me.
I snuck up to first class to find the only empty bathroom, and what I saw out the window amazed me. I went back and got the kids and brought them up to see Greenland a mile below us, covered in snow and rock on July 4th. He had been dead two days. We put our arms around each other, and I took pictures out the airplane window.
I had many offers of rides home from the airport that evening, but said yes to my parents. We were waiting in a short line at customs when I heard my name. Somehow, amazingly, there were two close friends returning from vacation in Mexico. They had heard the news. We only had a moment, but we shared a hug, right there in the SFO customs hall. Seeing familiar, loving faces and feeling their embrace helped warm my aching heart.
My parents, too, greeted us warmly with loving hugs. We were never a demonstrative, physical family. Their hugs and expressions of love are rare, and yet were so welcome in this moment. My east-coast upbringing offered more competitiveness than physical, non-sexual loving touch between family members. I remember snuggling with my little sister when we were very young, but I don’t remember a lot of touch at home. At 15, my friends would hug each other and say ‘I love you.’ The first time a friend did that with me, I told her I couldn’t handle it, but I would work on it. She was very patient with me, and we are still close friends to this day. It was the beginning of the me who likes to hug.
Just because I was raised a certain way, I realized, doesn’t mean it is true to who I am. I learned to love hugging my friends, and while I am not a very high-touch person, I am the first to open my arms when we greet. I love hugging. In social situations, if someone extends their hand, I put my arms around them. I have chosen to raise my children with lots of touch - I hold them, touch their arm when we speak, tell them I love them, play with their hair, and encourage them to treat each other with love. Some mornings, I will find them sweetly sharing a double bed, having a sleepover in each other's bedroom. One child is more naturally a high-touch person than the other, but they both give hugs and hold hands and show love easily.
My parents drove us home from the airport. We arrived at my house to the most amazing scene. A few close girlfriends were standing in the front yard. As I got out of the car and held each one of them, the front door opened and a stream of people came through. There were more than two dozen people in my home, just waiting to hug me! I reached for them, and the tears came. It was so hard to be at home, knowing my love Rupert was dead and would never be there again, the shock still holding fast to my brain. As I walked through my home, I was embraced over and over again. There was a spread of food on the kitchen island, and music coming from a temporary DJ booth set up with twinkly lights in the corner.
I have joined an online support group for grieving atheists. Recently, a member asked about anger. He was treating people around him horribly and wondering if his behavior was typical. He felt terrible about it, but he was out of control. Comment after comment of angry people grieving followed. I felt odd (wo)man out as I wrote, “I have had anger issues all my life. But now, with my partner suddenly, shockingly dead, I have no anger left. Anyone can leave us at anytime. We don’t know what each other is going through. I walk down the street and strangers passing don’t know I am grieving. I am emotionally fragile, and their flippant rude remark could undo me. I am even kind and patient with the frustratingly slow/wrong/rude clerk. I am simply too raw and vulnerable and hurt to be cruel to anyone.”
I honestly believe this lack of anger I feel is because of the homecoming I received. My protective walls were ripped away when Rupert died, and my friends and family showed up for me with love. Had my kids and I walked into an empty house and gone to our rooms alone, I would have cried alone all night. I would have felt alone, unloved, empty, and eventually, mean. Instead, I was cared for. I was held. I hug everyone now, making sure to get my minimal touch requirements like it is a vitamin. It is the only thing that is keeping me sane as the waves of grief roll in and out.
I attended Burning Man this year, which I have been doing on and off for 21 years. “Receiving hugs is my superpower,” I told a friend. My friends knew my grief, and held me tight whenever they saw me. The playa (Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man is held, is referred to as the playa) is a place of real connection, and when new friends learned of my grief, they held me, too.
A real conversation can lead to a real hug, long and deep, even if it is from a stranger you have never met and may never see again. It is in that moment that we see each other, and the hug is the physical embodiment of seeing and being seen. It is I see you, expressed physically.
It is now nearly 9 weeks later, and I can barely remember the first six. I have taken my older daughter to school. I am able to make it through the day, mostly. I have started hiking again, spending time in the woods with my dog and a friend. We greet with a hug, talk, breath, walk, and always part with a long hug. I insist on it. Many evenings, I am in my pajamas by 5 o’clock. I snuggle with the fuzzy tiger onesie he wore on Halloween. The death of my love is still the first thing on my mind when I wake up, and the last thing when I fall asleep. The condolence cards are no longer arriving daily. Two close friends are still living with my daughter and me, and I approach them for hugs every morning and every night. In the midst of grief and unexpected celibacy, being held is the glue that keeps me together and makes it easy to treat my loves well. It scares me to think I could be mean, and they might die suddenly.
I will keep hugging them so that I can treat them well. Life is short and death is out of our control. We are all temporary, and while we are here, we need each other. If the only way out is through, touch is the best guide.