“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

— The Talmud

A motto I learned decades ago from my colleagues in the American Holistic Medical Association was “Hugs Heal.”

This may never be truer than now. People are isolated, alone, untouched and untouchable.

I certainly broke protocol recently with a longtime patient. She always signs her MyChart notes to me with “Abrazos,” the Spanish word for hugs. Her mom had just died of COVID-19 pneumonia and the tears in her eyes, the look on her face cried out for human contact. She and I, fully masked, broke through the invisible barrier of COVID-19 taboo to exchange a warm hug of compassion, each of us feeling the same need in a time of grief and loss.

Another patient, with her own set of traumas, asked for a hug and said she hadn’t had one for months. Knowing the infectious disease risks, I reckoned a side-to-side hug as a healing gesture was needed and appropriate. Tears crept from her eyes. Gratitude suffused her smile.

These days even grandparents aren’t free to hug their grandchildren and those of us who attend worship in which warm embraces are part of our fellowship are now constrained from doing so.

This brings to mind a clinical report from many years ago. A foundling nursery in England was overwhelmed with infants orphaned by war. The babies were adequately clothed, fed, changed but weren’t thriving and were even dying at alarming rates.

In one instance, an infant was gaining weight and doing better than the others in his nursery. Curious as to what was happening, staff investigated and found the answer. A childless cleaning lady was picking up this baby at night, rocking, feeding, cooing and singing to him.

The simple actions of human touch and connection were causing this baby to thrive while all around the other babies were just hanging on, often dying despite adequate physical care.

Touch is mediated through our largest organ, the skin. It’s an interface we all know well from childhood through not only love and gentleness but roughness and the pain of injury.

Hugs bring contact, bring hearts close together, remind us we’re connected to each other. Now, in their absence, we notice how important they were.

My wife and I attended a funeral of a dear friend’s husband and were unable to give the simplest and most natural gesture of caring and compassion in her time of grief, a hug. Painful.

Maybe this is all to teach us how important we are to each’s others well-being. Hug those you love, those close to you, those who know and trust. The chance may not come again. But if it does, know that our connection to each other as humans is stronger than any negative situations we may face, if we face them together.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

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