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The first hug

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Coronavirus took us away from our loved ones for
months—what does it mean to embrace again?

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By Arielle Dance, Ph.D.

Do you remember your last hug?

Maybe you hugged your co-workers before leaving the office for the last time, congratulated your brother on his engagement on St. Patrick’s Day, or consoled a friend who just broke up with their partner?

Do you remember the last person you hugged before we were told it was too dangerous—before we were warned not to hug people outside of our households?

Even for those who claim not to be big on hugs, after months without human contact (or not a lot of it), many of us miss hugging or at least hugging certain people. The value of human touch cannot be overstated—and because of COVID-19, we’re learning what is lost when we can’t embrace. How it affects our mental health. How it can bring such sadness.

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My mom lives 15 minutes away, but during the lockdown we acted as if we live a thousand miles apart. Even before the pandemic, we spoke several times and texted throughout the day. My mother and I both suffer from anxiety to varying degrees, which may play a part in our attachment.

I will admit, in the first week of lockdown, I was sobbing on FaceTime with my mom. I was struggling with the demands of remote work adjustments, terrified by the unknowns of coronavirus, and failing horribly at pretending to be OK.

All I wanted was a hug from my mom.

My mom is extremely affectionate, and the idea of going without hugs for a prolonged amount of time was unimaginable. My mother’s depression and anxiety are severe, and she lives alone. During the months of quarantine, we have had to find new ways to express our love. We’ve resorted to FaceTime dates, front porch dinner drops, and sidewalk meet-and-greets with my dog.

But on the days that I didn’t have time to FaceTime or my wife and I didn’t cook anything to bring over to mom’s porch, I heard a heaviness and sadness in my mom’s voice. I could feel clouds and waves of darkness washing over our family. She became distant and quiet on our phone calls. Some nights she cried.

By May, two months into our hug withdrawal, my mother was barely sleeping or eating. She was always apologizing for being down. I was not sure if it was because of her work furlough or any host of other life circumstances. The pandemic had taken a toll on her finances and living situation, and I could see it stealing her joy. But she would light up every time we visited for puppy therapy and during our video dates, so we kept up our routine. I just wanted to keep her in a positive space.

We sat in silence often, partly because quarantine isn’t very eventful but also because she just wanted me on the phone with her. My heart would break when she would sob and apologize for her sadness.

Learning to be a virtual caregiver is really something our generation will perfect by the end of this pandemic.

Learning to be a virtual caregiver is really something our generation will perfect by the end of this pandemic.

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The day our state announced its lockdown in mid-March 2020, I ran into my older cousin. Her wedding was two weeks away, and she had just left a hair appointment for her wedding day trial run. Everyone in our community was rushing around preparing for the impending lockdown—getting groceries, prescriptions, all of the necessities. But running into my cousin brought me a needed sense of calm.

With the governor’s order in mind, everyone around gave us the “Don’t get too close to each other!” judgey-eyes as we hugged. As my cousin leaned in, I said, “I’m not supposed to hug you.” She grabbed me into the warmest embrace and said, “You’re my cousin. I love you. If you go, I go.”

I did not realize that would be the last hug I would have from someone other than my wife for three months.

I am grateful for the love and comfort my wife has been able to give me during this time of distancing from others. But there was no one I wanted to hug more than my mother.

I know that many will say, “At least you had a spouse to hug during those months.” And I am grateful for the love and comfort my wife has been able to give me during this time of distancing from others. But there was no one I wanted to hug more than my mother. My wife knew it, and so did my mom.

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In early June, my mother lost a close friend who was also dealing with mental health challenges. It hit her deeply. She was wailing and weeping when she told me the news. I couldn’t console her.

We couldn’t hug.

The next day, Tuesday, June 9, our governor lifted the stay-at-home order. The first thing I asked my wife was, “I’m going to hug my mom, right?” My wife, our pup, and I hopped in our car, and I told my mom we were on our way. Unaware of the governor’s announcement and in true mom fashion, she asked if we had dinner with us. (We didn’t. I was one-track-minded that day).

When we arrived, she was already a bit weepy—grateful for the surprise visit. Our dog was loving on her a little extra. I said, “Mommy, the governor lifted the stay-at-home order today.” She lit up—as if she had been waiting for this moment. We were standing at a distance, but she stood up from her slump on the porch steps and opened her arms to welcome me in.

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We embraced. She wept.

She held me in a way she hasn’t since I was a college student home on break. She inhaled as if she hadn’t smelled me in years. I gave my mom the time she needed to weep, to hold, and to remember what hugging felt like. We didn’t move for minutes. I thought I would cry, but I was just so happy to have her close.

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I thought I was finished meditating on hugs and writing this piece, and then the next morning our world shifted again.

I was awoken with the news of the sudden passing of a loved one. The loss of this young son rattled the community and my family. I had never heard so many mothers in my community cry out in pain at one time. On that warm June night, a group of loved ones and I went to a candlelight vigil to honor this young life.

At the vigil, my wife had her first hug. My wife had not been able to hug her mother yet, but at the vigil she hugged students whom she mentors, grateful that they are still alive. She hugged community members who were openly grieving and sobbing. She hugged our nephew, only 7 years old, who wants to know why God would take such a young soul. These were her first hugs.

I witnessed so many mourners have their first hugs.

Weeping, grieving, and reuniting, people gathered, blocking streets and sidewalks, embracing. Everyone’s first hugs were not with the person they thought they would be. They may not have been full of joy or love. Some hugs were full of sadness and pain.

You will get to experience your first hug again, if you haven’t already. You may drive down the street and see strangers hugging in a driveway. That may be their first hug. Some people still have not had a hug in months and do not know when one is coming.

Whatever your situation, whether your first hug (handshake or shoulder pat) is full of joy, gratitude, or mourning, please honor that connection.

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About Arielle D. Dance, Ph.D.

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Arielle Dance, Ph.D., is a left-handed only child, currently living in Maplewood, New Jersey, with her wife, Stevana, and chihuahua-terrier, Minnie. She received her Ph.D. in Mind-Body Medicine from Saybrook University in 2017. Arielle is focused on highlighting invisible illnesses, inclusive family structure, and caregiving.

A pre-published children’s book author, Dr. Dance’s stories feature a young child named Spencer who loves unicorn dance parties, playing with the best dog ever, and hanging out with Mommy and Mama. When she’s not writing about Spencer’s adventures, Dr. Dance is writing about health-related topics in her community and advocating for health equity.

Within her community, Arielle is actively involved in numerous initiatives with the North Jersey Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., including co-chairing the Physical & Mental Health committee. Near to her heart, Arielle serves as an Ambassador for World Thrombosis Day, fearlessly sharing her Blood Clot Survivorship journey.

In her academics, Arielle is an Integrative Women’s Health Researcher and Endometriosis Advocate. Her most recent research focuses on noninvasive coping mechanisms for endometriosis and specific relaxation techniques, including meditation, deep breathing, and guided imagery. Arielle empowers those with chronic pain to break the silence and stigma related to their illnesses and advocate for their rights.

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