Friday, 26 February 2016

A Touch of Comfort

For a brief moment the dull but ever present ache of loneliness abated. Standing embracing a fellow widow in a prolonged hug of mutual understanding and support as we said farewell after meeting for coffee, I allowed myself to become lost in the sheer warmth and reassurance of the physical contact, momentarily snuggling into her and remembering all over again the pleasure of once more holding and being held by a woman, even if only platonically. Embarrassingly, the relief was so strong that I let out an involuntary low groan of sheer contentment. 

One of the most obvious and shocking, but least remarked upon, consequences of the sudden loss of your partner is the equally sudden withdrawal of human contact. In an instant I was catapulted from a life full of kisses, hugs, cuddles, hand-holding and all the daily casual affirmatory contact of coupledom, the touch on the arm as you pass each other in the kitchen, the reaching out of hands across the dining room table, in to a barren wasteland devoid of the comfort and consolation of any form of touch. All gone, without any notice, without any opportunity to prepare. 

It hit me particularly hard because Louise and I were an unusually tactile couple, something which had not been altered by the familiarity which comes with three and a half years of marriage. Whenever we were out, wherever we were walking, we almost always held hands. We held hands in church. We held hands at football matches. We held hands in bed. Until our last couple of evenings together when Louise withdrew into herself, we never once watched TV without cuddling up on the sofa. It would have been unthinkable for us to be sitting in the same room and not be next to each other, touching in some way. When we were in the car together Louise's hand invariably rested on my knee as I drove. 

Over the years I had become used to this level of physical contact and took it somewhat for granted. More perhaps than almost anything else, it was the disappearance of these everyday signs of affection and support, at precisely the time when I needed them most, which would leave me feeling so isolated and lonely.

This was 
most vividly brought home to me at Louise's funeral. As we stood at the Crematorium in the freezing cold of a February morning watching the hearse slowly pull towards us, I turned and glanced at those family members gathered behind me. Almost without exception all were huddling into the arms of their partners for comfort. Never in my entire life had I more needed to be able to do the same. But I stood alone, exposed. My partner was unable to offer that same support. My partner was lying in the coffin being borne towards me.

In the long months since then I have come to yearn for female touch, ravenous for a simple hug in which I can lose myself. It is not about the flickering of sexual desire, though inconveniently that too of course does not magically disappear with the death of my wife. Rather, there is a primal need for warmth, comfort and affection. I am not alone in this. It's no coincidence that the standard message of support, the constant one word refrain in the on-line forums for young widows and widowers is simply 'hugs'.

It's not been easy to satisfy this hunger. Platonic displays of physical affection from a man towards a woman are liable to misinterpretation unless there is a clear understanding, as there was outside that cafe, of the context. For a long time I was in any case also held back by guilt. There was a vague sense that it was wrong and disloyal, a betrayal of my love for Louise, to allow myself to take advantage of those rare opportunities for hugs that presented themselves. Or at least to allow myself to relax sufficiently to gain any comfort or consolation from the moment, however innocent it would have been. 

But now the landscape has subtly changed. It so happened that the coffee with my friend came a day after the anniversary of Louise's death. Objectively there would seem very little difference between 364 and 365 days of mourning, but the psychological leap from the first to the second year was profound. There was an instant lifting of some of the constraints and obligations, and some of the guilt, I had burdened myself with for twelve months.  It did not mean that things suddenly became easy, that I no longer remembered, loved or honoured Louise. But I felt as though I had a little more permission to breathe, to do what I needed to for myself.

Over the days that followed there were other appropriate opportunities to test this new freedom, to lean into and truly savour hugs of greeting and farewell with friends where they were offered. Every time I wanted to hold tighter and for longer, to squeeze and squeeze and be squeezed and squeezed until I was lonely no more. It does not make things all right but it's a powerful, if all too 
temporary, balm.

To all who require them, hugs. 

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