One day about two weeks ago, when the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic was crashing down upon everyone, my wife and I sat our 6-year-old daughter, Josie, down for The Talk we never thought we’d have to have.
There have been plenty of personal sacrifices and hardships stemming from the spread of this novel coronavirus — and there are surely many more to come. But thus far, for my wife and I at least, one of the most difficult things we’ve had to do in the effort to help “flatten the curve” is to explain to Josie that she had to stop giving out hugs.
Anyone who has ever crossed paths with Josephine Rehagen knows that hugging is her superpower. She was an early talker, and from the beginning, she used her voice to say “hi,” introduce herself, and chat up family, total strangers, “babies” who were older than she was, and the elderly, charming them with her signature lisp.
When she learned to read, she used her newfound skill to sound out the names on nametags of nurses, Waffle House servers, and Lowe’s associates. Even before that, Josie had always had the innate ability to see people — to sense when they were happy or sad, and regardless of their mood, open her arms and offer a comforting embrace.
So when we told her that, in order to keep people like grandma and papaw from getting “very, very sick,” we could no longer touch other people, let alone hug them — even family — Josie cried. Then we cried.
This is life or death. Social distancing is crucial to our collective well being and possibly our own survival and the survival of those we love. I firmly believe in the science. One befuddled child’s tears are more than worth the health and lives of our neighbors and fellow humans. But while we lock ourselves away in our houses, while we start greeting passersby with uneasy smiles from six feet away, it’s important to remember what we’re losing.
Hugs are little miracles. Science backs this up. Studies have shown that a hug lowers blood pressure and heart rates — particularly during a stressful moment. Hugs cause the body to release oxytocin — the so-called “cuddle chemical” — which promotes soothing. Some researchers have found that supportive hugs might even boost the immune system.
And perhaps most importantly, hugs are natural expressions of love, friendship, trust, and support that every human needs, especially in a time of emotional darkness. Now might be a time when a hug would help the most.
Forecasts and timetables for this virus and its spread are uncertain, but most experts seem to agree that our current social lockdown will be more a matter of months than weeks. Even when this finally passes, it’s unlikely that anyone will be overeager to touch someone they don’t know. But I hope that a society that was already gravitating toward virtual relationships — more prone to a Facebook “poke” or a smiley emoji than a handshake or a high five — doesn’t forget the power of human touch. And as parents, it’s our job to make sure that the Josies of the world keep themselves and their loved ones safe while not losing their superpowers. We need to make sure they don’t grow into adults who are afraid to offer others a comforting embrace. When all of this is finally over, we’re all going to need one.
Tony Rehagen is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.