The Loss of Touch

Jul 15, 2020

By Bea Larsen

As we keep our distance from one another, what I miss most is touch, a handshake, contact with a steadying arm allowing me to safely match the stride of a companion,  and the pleasure of being pulled into the gentle embrace of a friend, feeling the texture of their clothing, their scent, the pressure of another body held against mine. Memories arise of longing for the lost loving touch of my husband, skin to skin. Over time the yearning receded, eased by the physical touch of others who reached out, at first to offer comfort and then simply as a sign of our deepening friendships.

Scientists inform that touch, not just sensual touch, even the casual welcomed touch of others, releases the hormone oxytocin, countering cortisol, the stress hormone. So too does social interaction. Research repeatedly proves that neural responses to threat cues are minimized when social connection and support is provided. When staying home with our door closed to others, that too is in short supply.

I know well I’m not alone in bemoaning this loss. The Pew Research Center reported earlier this year that twenty-seven percent of adults in the U.S. aged sixty and older live alone. The number rises to fifty-one percent of those seventy-five and older. In 2017, Pew reported the most startling number of all: forty-two percent of all adults in the country are living without a spouse or partner. I had assumed that the trend for cohabitation meant many more were partnered up. But apparently the increase in cohabitation has not been large enough to offset the decline in marriage. So many of those who abide by the distancing rules of the pandemic must be as starved as I am for touch.

When awake at 3:00am with troubling thoughts, I sometimes reach into my stash of letters my husband and I exchanged many years ago. Seeing his handwriting and reading his words can almost feel like a touch.

A conversation with a friend, by phone or email, that goes beyond the mundane, the sharing of an intimate story of pleasure, or fear…is almost like a touch.

The check-in call from a friend whose email has gone too long without a response…is almost like a touch.

Alone at my dining table eating a home cooked meal prepared and delivered by a friend, visualizing their preparation, the chopping, the stirring, the baking…is almost like a touch.

The compassion I feel for others whose suffering is so great and the reward of being able to make a gift to those dedicated to feeding the hungry…is almost like a touch.

A card received in the mail or a call from a friend expressing concern about my well-being…is almost like a touch.

Exchanging a smile and a wave from a passing jogger when I’m out for a walk… is almost like a touch.

A collective effort by neighbors to express concern about another neighbor’s mishap…is almost like a touch.

The responsive call from the neighbor expressing gratitude while holding back tears…is almost like a touch.

The renewed connection with a niece absent from my life for many years…is almost like a touch.

Exchanging texts with a distant child, miles away and many decades removed from childhood…is almost like a touch.

Sitting on a garden bench, basking in the warmth of the springtime sun on my upturned face…is almost like a touch.

Even the vibrant red blossoms of my neighbor’s azaleas lit by the late afternoon sun… is almost like a touch.

Giving voice to my gratitude to those who let me know how ready they are to respond to my concerns in these scary times…is almost like a touch.

No skin touches skin, but these connections that show me what community and friendship mean course right through me with pleasure.

And then there is my actual tactile reward, my pet.  How grateful I am for Eleanor, my orange tabby cat, who is often by my side. She arches her neck responding to a gentle pull on her ears. I find her curled against the curve of my sleeping body as I come awake in the morning. Still half asleep, I reach to stroke her silky fur, my fingers absorbing the warmth of her breathing body, her subtle movements urging my strokes to continue. But before long she nudges me with her forehead, repeatedly, until I swing my legs to the floor. Should I rest a moment before rising she nips at my ankles, not to be denied her breakfast. Later in the day she often sits at my side when my laptop has usurped her preferred space.

And knowing I am in this together with all of my loner comrades and reaching out in thought and written words…is almost like a touch.

Larsen has retired as senior mediator at the Center for Resolution of Disputes. She received the 2007 John P. Kiely Professionalism Award, the 2014 Themis Award and the 2020 Mediator of the Year Award from the CBA, and also served as the CBA president in 1986-1987. Her commentary can be viewed at www.bealarsen.com.