The soft effect of a human touch

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By Janny Wilcke

Every morning, as my husband passes by the couch where I normally sit with my coffee reading, he pats my head gently as he heads upstairs to shower and dress for the day.  He rarely says anything – just taps my hair and caresses it affectionately as he passes by. It is astounding what an effect this simple gesture has on me. It induces an indescribably relaxed feeling that my world is good and I am too. It’s a wonderful way to start my day.

Touching is a powerful means of interpersonal communication as countless studies have confirmed. Indeed, the need to be touched is instinctive. In fact, humans – and even most other mammals – require physical contact to thrive. Nurses in Neonatal Intensive Care Units encourage the parents of premature infants under their care to nestle the little ones against their bare chests. Such skin-to-skin contact, known as “kangaroo care,” has been shown to influence positively the outcome for these tiny at-risk babies.

Our two youngest grandchildren – a little girl, aged 18 months, and her boy cousin, who is 12 months old – illustrate the instinctive desire for this contact. Both have not only slept between their parents since birth, but they each continue to do so. They simply never slept well alone in a crib but settled down peacefully when placed between mom and dad for the night. Now, I’m well aware that many pediatricians discourage this practice and so I’m not advocating it. However, it does work well for my grandkids. Indeed, Teagan, at one and one-half, even naps in her father’s arms – her crib merely a repository for her stuffed animals.

Our oldest son went through a grave and extended illness when he was seventeen, which caused him to spend days and weeks in the renowned Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, near where we lived at the time. I remember well the comforting touch or embrace of the nurses from time to time when I was particularly distraught with worry.

The truth is, I confess to being a hugger. I have many friends with whom I share a warm embrace each time we meet. It seems to affirm the depth of our friendship and make our meeting and interaction more intimate and caring. I feel blessed that my son-in law regularly hugs me at family gatherings.  The hug tells me not only that I am welcome but also that I am an important part of his life with my daughter and their six children.

The simple gesture of placing a hand on a bereaved friend’s arm or shoulder can take the place of many words that are sometimes difficult.  And a touch says something that words alone cannot.  “I care. You are important. I am here for you.”

Some of us don’t like to be touched. Our body is our private space and we feel affronted and indignant at any kind of intrusion. But I think that feeling is not so common. Of course, this type of physical intimacy is sometimes inappropriate, but I think most of us carry a “sixth sense” about when to touch or hug an acquaintance or relative.

The inclination to touch or hug other people is partly a cultural tradition, hence largely, although not exclusively, influenced by upbringing. Parents who are comfortable with physical contact tend to raise children who enjoy the same intimacy.

My husband comes from a large extended family of huggers. His mom had eight sisters and one of them had eleven children. I will never forget when my husband introduced me as his fiancé to a large group of his cousins. His cousin John, six foot one and well over two hundred pounds, took me in his arms as if I’d known him for years.

We went to dinner at a restaurant and when we were done, everyone – at least a dozen people - hugged each other goodbye next to the table. Outside the restaurant in the parking lot, the conversation picked up again so that after five minutes, the entire group of twelve hugged goodbye again. By then, I felt welcomed into that family.

If you are not a ‘toucher’ or a hugger by nature, you can still learn to enjoy the unique intimacy that comes from touching another person. Who knows? Maybe you can give a jump-start to the day of a loved one.