The Loss Of Touch In A Post-Covid World

I attended a funeral on Wednesday for a dear family friend, someone I’ve known my whole life. He didn’t die of Covid; rather, of old age and ill health and a broken heart. He did die alone, though, except for nursing staff, his friends and family unable to visit him in his final weeks. Still, we gathered to celebrate his life, one of colour and flamboyance and dancing to his own beat, unapologetic to the end.

In the UK we’re still under some restrictions due to the Covid outbreak (and I think they’ll increase again, sadly – we are not out of this yet). Therefore, only a dozen mourners were allowed at the funeral. His neighbours, though, lined the street as the hearse passed, and there was love aplenty to lift him to the next realm. When we reached the chapel, there were only a dozen chairs scattered around the large space, instead of the pews and crowds and whispered hum of a usual funeral. We each took a chair, pulling them into small family groups of two or three, all of us nodding and blowing kisses across the room. But there was no touching. No hugging or comforting or patting of arms. No shaking of hands or kissed cheeks. Afterwards, we sat in separate chairs in my parents’ back garden and toasted our lost friend, telling stories of his life as we ate from our own serving bowls, the food prepared using gloves and tongs and tiny dishes, rather than the usual free-for-all of big plates and togetherness.

It was very strange.

I couldn’t put my finger on what about it, exactly, was strange, until later in the day. And I realised it felt as though everyone was mad at me. There was no change in conversation, in how we talked and laughed and related to each other. But without the hugs and closeness and touches of everyday life, I felt, somehow, on the outer. And it made me realise not only how much the world has changed due to Covid, but also how important touch is as part of our human existence.

In ancient times, when humans lived in tribes, the community was how we protected ourselves, strength in numbers. To be exiled from the tribe was basically a death sentence. In medieval times, when prisoners were sent on the long journey to London and the tower, no one would talk to them or interact with them in any way, in case they be seen as sympathetic to their crimes. This is, in fact, the origin of the phrase ‘Sent to Coventry’, as Coventry was an important stop on the way to London. Closeness and acceptance within our own community is a sign that we’re part of something, that we’re included, not shunned. Yet now we cross the street to avoid getting too close to people, stand in the driveway and shout, rather than having close conversations. We have to do these things, of course, but I wonder what impact it is having on us as a society.

We communicate so many things through touch. The handshake, the hug, the pat on the back. The kiss on the cheek, on the hand, or the lips. Holding hands. Linking arms. The Maori hongi and the Inuit kunik, rubbing noses to express affection. We affirm our relationships, whether business or friendship or family or lover, through touch, and it is how we experience much of the world. So, as a species, to have touch taken away from us is a very strange thing.

I’ve been fortunate during this crisis to have both my husband and daughter at home with me. Hugs are not in short supply in our house. I can’t imagine how it must feel to be cut off, to be isolating alone, with no human touch at all. And I wonder at the long-term fallout of this, of the mental impact of going without such an important sense for so long. Even before Covid there was growing distance within our communities, people not knowing their neighbours, much of our lives lived online. Once we return to whatever normal will be when this is over, I wonder what will happen – whether we’ll continue to keep our distance, or perhaps make more of an effort to seek out human contact, rather than shut ourselves away.

I hope the latter is the case.


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35 thoughts on “The Loss Of Touch In A Post-Covid World

  1. I’m a huggy person from a huggy family and I certainly feel the loss of physical contact. Thankfully I have my hubby and puppy. They are getting lots of hugs these days. Sending you a virtual hug!!

  2. This ties in with a post I am writing for the Silent Eye, Helen. Touch is part of who we are… even if we do not consider ourselves particularly tactile as individuals… and I believe it is incredibly damaging to deny that basic human need. x

  3. Excellent post. I am so sad for folks unable to communicate through touch during these times, and especially, like you experienced, during life events. I, too, wonder how this will impact our society in the long run. Touch is vital. 🌷

  4. I am sorry for your loss, but what a wonderful tribute to a man so well respected and loved.
    Touch and hugs are as vital to life as breathing in my book. I am lucky to have Hubby by my side through all this and sometimes just to feel his arms around me or mine around him is enough to help get things back into perspective. It is only the two of us, we have no family here and due to Covid-19, neighbours are sensibly keeping their distance, as are we. A neighbour died over the Easter holidays (terminal cancer) and her funeral was quiet, no flowers, no long service, a handful of mourners. Ironically, it was just how she wanted it.

    • Thank you 🙂 And I’m so glad you have someone to share this time with – we are lucky, aren’t we? Also your neighbour sounds wonderful – I’m glad her send-off was just as she wanted it 🙂

    • Thanks, Sharon. And yes, that’s exactly it. I know my parents found it upsetting too, not to be able to hug us or be hugged. It’s a very strange time, isn’t it?

  5. Interesting speculations. I, too, am curious about what the world will look like after all this passes. Sorry about the loss of you friend, and the proceedings sound kind of unsettling.

    • Thanks, Craig. It was very strange (I keep using that word but honestly, it was). Just a big empty space with a few chairs, all of us keeping our distance. Unsettling, as you say.

  6. So true. But things will get back to normal, they always do. Sadly, it might take some time. I’m at the moment reading the diaries of someone who lived through the German occupation in Greece. It has put things in perspective!

    • Yes, I bet it has. And I bet that’s an interesting read, too. We will move past this – I just wonder what shape the world will be in when we do. I hope the silver lining is that it leads to positive change 🙂

  7. Like you I have spousal hugs available, but even those are tinged with … sadness, regret, perhaps even a little guilt, and we do tend to avoid each other for a while after we’ve been out somewhere, (shopping trips) not that that would do any good if either of us had been exposed, but never-the-less … we’re odd creatures, us humans.

  8. I’m so sorry your friend had to die alone. It really is a strange time we’re in. I’m hoping that when it’s done, we keep the good we’ve learned, and ditch the bad.

  9. An interesting post, Helen. I have not had to attend any funerals during this time, thank goodness. My English family has never been very touchy feely. Kissing is positively discouraged and my mom always says, even now, that kissing spreads germs. I wondered, as I read your post, whether this doesn’t come from the times of the plague which was very bad where my family originates from.

    • That’s a really interesting take on it, Robbie. I wonder if that does have something to do with it. And I wonder whether humans, generations from now, will be doing something similar…

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