Group Hug

Is your family hugging enough?

I’ve been off the grid lately, and I’m sorry.

My son came home from college, leaving a trail of belongings all over the house. The mom of a close friend of mine died, and the next day, I heard that a cloistered nun I’d befriended had passed away too.

As my father reminded me when my mother-in-law passed away at age 72, death is difficult. My father was not a hugger nor the touchy-feely sort. But when he and my mother showed up unexpectedly at the tiny church on Martha’s Vineyard for my mother-in-law’s funeral in 2004, he put his hands squarely on my shoulders and tearfully reminded me that funerals are hard.

I still remember that encounter 15 years later because it was so unusual for my father. That wasn’t his style, and he was always a little uncomfortable with physical signs of affection. He’d gladly accept a kiss on the cheek when we were little girls, but he told me on several occasions that he grew up in a house where people didn’t hug or kiss each other often.

“We weren’t like your mother’s family, where there is all this hugging and kissing when they get together,” he’d say.

The final scene of people hugging each other at Heathrow Airport in “Love Actually” gives me chills.

I couldn’t tell if he was jealous of my mom’s demonstrative Irish clan, but I suspect he was at some level. There’s something wonderful, reassuring and comforting about a hug when you’re feeling sad or needy. In some ways, a hug is the ultimate way of saying, “I understand, and I’m here for you if you need anything,” or “Boy, I’m really happy to see you.”

Since most of us are a product of our upbringing, I grew up wary and uncomfortable around hugging. I stiffened when huggers approached, uncertain if I should slip in a peck on the cheek, just stand there or reciprocate. I was uncomfortable because hugging isn’t something my family did upon greeting people. We were kissers – a quick peck on the cheek when grandparents or aunts and uncles visited from New York.

I never realized there were hugging families until I met the Curmudgeon’s tribe.

My mother-in-law was an enthusiastic hugger who greeted everyone, including relative strangers, with a huge embrace upon meeting them. Early in our relationship, she realized that I was uncomfortable with hugging and would give me a reluctant hug when we’d meet. Eventually, she announced that she knew I didn’t like hugs, so she’d spare me the torture of her embrace.

I could tell she was perplexed by my reaction to her hugging, and this made the whole situation even more stressful for me. To be clear, it’s not that I disliked hugging or her. It’s just that I was uncomfortable around it because I didn’t grow up in a family of huggers.

Looking back on it, I don’t really understand what my problem was, but I suppose I was a product of my environment. I’ve tried to show my children a lot more physical affection with hugs, but guess what? Neither is particularly fond of me hugging them. For that matter, neither is the dog, who runs away from me when I try to hug her.

My daughter often swats me away when I move in for a hug. My son hugs me when leaving for college or an extended vacation, but otherwise I must initiate a hug if I want one. And let’s face it, there are only so many times you can ask a 21-year-old for a hug without feeling a little needy.

I asked both kids why they don’t hug a lot, and they replied, “We’re not the huggy types.” My daughter seemed more perplexed about her stance than my son, but I hope she doesn’t feel bad about the situation. She’s young, and can certainly develop an affinity for it with time.

I certainly hope both kids’ become more comfortable with hugging because I’ve realized that they’re a very good thing. In fact, I think the world would be a much better place if people were more generous with them.

Research suggests that we need about eight hugs a day for optimum health and happiness. I don’t know about you, but I’m falling a little short in this department, and have a lot of catching up to do.

My daughter, right, in a group hug with her cross country team. With me, she’s not as generous.

I’ve learned that when push comes to shove, most people are incredibly receptive and appreciative of a hug, particularly when they’re suffering with the grief accompanying the death of a loved one. I’ve learned that hugs transcends words, conveying thoughts and emotions that are impossible to get across with speech.

As I’ve aged, I’ve gotten much more generous with hugs because I realize their value. When I’m at a loss for words – I know, when has that ever happened? – a hug is a simple way of saying, “I know. I understand how you’re feeling because I’ve felt that way too. I’m here for you if you need anything.”

I’m not sure I qualify yet as a super hugger, but I’ve been surprising myself lately dispensing hugs to strangers – something I’d never have done 10 years ago.

The first recipient was the former colleague of my two friends who accompanied us to a Red Sox game in Boston. I’d just met her, and well, it seemed like the right thing to do. Everyone else was hugging, so why not? I even slipped in a second one when we left her place in Cambridge the next day.

The other hug went to the sister of the nun who had just died. She was staying at the monastery for a few days after the funeral before flying back to her home in Nebraska.

She approached me in the lobby to ask me a question. As I looked in her eyes, I instantly knew that she was the deceased nun’s sister. Their resemblance to each other was striking.

“Are you Sr. Joan’s sister?” I asked.

“Yes, I am,” she said. “You know, I worried about her being lonely when she was sick, but I’ve realized that there were so many people who loved her and with her before her death,” she said. “I feel so much better knowing she was around people who loved her.”

As the conversation ended, I extended my arms and hugged her. I had just met her, yet it seemed like the right thing to do. But just in case she was leery, I issued a warning: “I’m going to give you a hug if you don’t mind.”

She didn’t mind. In fact, she hugged me back. And in that moment, I knew that it was the right thing to do. I was following my gut and instincts, not standing on ceremony or overthinking. And when you do that, you know that a hug is the only thing in the world that will do.

14 thoughts on “Group Hug

  1. My family was not demonstrative so of course I am with my daughter. But while she hugs me freely, she is not that way with others, so who knows? But I hate PDA , so if I’m outside the house I’m not a hand holder or such


  2. I’m surprised your father wasn’t a hugger. I thought all Sicilian were. I certainly am. I’ve noticed your reluctance to hug. It’s ok. You have other, less tactile ways of expressing your love.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post again. Some things surprise me. I got some huge bear hugs from our father and I always thought he displayed emotion–the full range! It was G who I thought was less demonstrative. Regarding hugs, I think people just hug more today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe it was just me he didn’t hug. But he told me on several occasions he wasn’t a hugger so I assumed it was true. In any event, there wasn’t a lot of hugging among us. I don’t begrudge your bear hugs. One of the perks of being the oldest. He also cried when you went to college. I think he did a jig when other kids left, or maybe he didn’t even notice:).


  4. I think some people are just naturally more comfortable with hugging than others, and that’s okay. And there are times when it’s better to hug, even if we don’t really feel like it. Because as you say, sometimes nothing else will really do!


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