More about Hugs–and Tears

A couple of weeks ago, two women at my doctor’s office offered  much-needed hugs — for opposite reasons that both connect to my widowed status. Here’s what happened:

When I check in at the front desk, the young woman behind the chest-high counter asks me to review my medical records. Routine stuff, right? Wrong.

I glance at the page and feel my forehead go pale. In the seconds it takes to process the written emergency contact and financially responsible party, my fingertips already dampen the page. My lungs feel as they did when a year-older bully punched me in elementary school. My stomach lurches as it did  three years earlier, the first time my trembling hand scrawled “widowed” between the mutually exclusive yet equally accurate options of “married” and “single.”

Between blinks at those small, inked symbols, I’ve been transported back to the most traumatic period of my life.

With the offensive paper shaking in my hands, I lean forward, resting my forearms on the countertop. I hate that tears rim my eyes — Snap! — just like that. Three years of progress in learning to “handle” and “manage” my grief — gone.

“Ma’am? Ma’am? Are you okay?”

I nod-shake my head in an indecipherable up-side-to-side-and-down gesture, still unable to draw in breath enough to speak. I feel badly for the poor girl (about my oldest daughter’s age) staring up at me from her monitor and keyboard. It isn’t her fault that three years’ of “updated” information never made it into the office database. I feel the impatient stares of other patients in the growing line behind me.

When I finally manage to inhale, my first words come as unfiltered as they did three years ago, back when I  began nearly every conversation  the same way. “My husband died.” Now I add, as if needing to justify my display of emotion, “I already changed it on the forms, but he’s still written here.”

The young woman stammers out, “I’m sorry.” She looks nearly as distressed as I feel.

Once I manage to cross out  my husband’s name and information — Ouch! — and write in my current contact and ID numbers, she promises she’ll input it immediately — so I won’t have to face that again.

Fast forward 30+ minutes later, inside the exam room.

In walks the doctor, who does a double-take when she sees me. “You’ve lost weight [16 pounds so far!]. You look terrific! And you don’t have the cane with you anymore? Tell me what’s been going on.”

I share the miracle of healing that let me ditch my cane after 10 years and 5 months. I show her the story I wrote in my copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive for Kids and tell her of my other published work. I answer questions about my daughters’ well-being.

My doctor beams at me with unfallen tears glistening. “You’ve come so far after such a hard load of grief. May I give you a hug?”

Earlier in my grief (as I stated in “To comfort the bereaved, give hugs–but ask first!”) I was prickly about being touched. Sometimes I craved the embrace of a friend almost as much as I craved my husband’s hugs. Other times, I couldn’t stand any hugs that were not his — especially not from unrelated men.

Now, though, I welcome her hug as much as the compassion that prompts it.

Fast forward again, this time back in the lobby,  standing in another line to check out. The young woman who witnessed my tears earlier leaves her desk and approaches me. “I’m really sorry about before,” she says. “Would it be okay if I give you a hug?

Again, I welcome it.

Whether in celebration or sorrow, whether accompanied by tears of rejoicing or despair, a hug is a wonderful gift and healing tool — when asked and applied appropriately.

To Comfort the Bereaved, Give Hugs–But Ask First!

Offer hugs, but ASK before embracing.

In the first year after my husband died, sometimes I needed — but sometimes I couldn’t stand — hugs. The one person I most wanted to hug me was no longer around — and never would be again. I didn’t want “substitutes.”

There were times our daughters didn’t “feel like” hugs, either, and although my arms ached to offer them a mother’s comforting embrace, I learned they each needed to grieve their father on their own terms and in their own ways.

Most days, though, I accepted and found strength in other women’s hugs, especially from widows. (Their silent squeezes conveyed I understand better than words.) I found solace in my male relatives’ hugs, too. We’ve always been a “huggy” family on both sides, so sharing their (often wordless, occasionally bear-like) embraces felt familiar and comforting.

However, I did not, repeat, did not enjoy hugs from male friends and acquaintances, not even a little bit in the first year … or two. Maybe I was overly sensitive. Maybe not. For me, when I made my marriage vows 24 years earlier, I took the “forsake all others” portion to heart, hands, and arms. My husband was the man I hugged — the only man I hugged — other than kin (and a very few close-as-kin-to-us-both friends), because that was what I chose. That was one way I honored him — and our vows.

I wasn’t in the habit of hugging other men when my husband stepped from the room or went away on a trip. Why, after death took him “away,” would I suddenly do so? I still felt the same connection and commitment to him — and to our vows. To me, hugging other men after he died felt as “wrong”  as it would have felt while he lived.

However, for many widowed friends, hugs from friends of the opposite sex helped! Such hugs made them feel better connected to their late spouses. The hugs that disconcerted me brought them a semblance of peace.

These days, three years into widowhood, I’m no longer raw with the shock and newness of my loss. I willingly accept and return (almost all) embraces.

I even initiate hugs — but I ask first, unless I’m offering virtual (((hugs))) like these.

(((Hugs))) to you for reaching out to your grieving friends, coworkers, and family members.