The Comfort of the Human Touch by Margaret McGullam

Which of all these does not know that the hand of God has done this? In his hand is the soul of every living thing and the life breath of all mankind.

– Job 12:9–10

God created humans in His own image and likeness. However, God instilled in us a yearning to be with Him and a need to be with other humans as well. We are all familiar with the song “People” sung by Barbra Streisand. Yes, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.”

A baby in the womb hears and recognizes its mother voice. Pictures of a baby sucking its own thumb in the uterus have been taken. The baby enjoys the contact of its own finger in its mouth. I read an article of a surgeon who was performing surgery on an unborn child. When he placed his finger inside the uterus, the baby grasped his finger with its hand! Isn’t that amazing?

When a person holds a baby and puts a finger near the baby’s hand, the baby will grasp the finger with its whole hand. A child is comforted when held in loving arms. How many times are young parents up during the night holding a crying baby who is teething, sick, or just restless? They rock them, sway, or sing songs trying to soothe them back to sleep. Sometimes a baby or a young child can be comforted and drift off to sleep when someone gently rubs his or her back.

Babies or children in orphanages or in long hospitalizations are at a disadvantage. Unless the institution is aware of the child’s need to be held and caressed, and only gives minimal physical contact for feeding, diapering, or other physical needs, the child will suffer great consequences. Babies have died from what is known as “failure to thrive.” They stop eating, become withdrawn, and die. In recent years, some children who were adopted from orphanages in Eastern European countries needed intensive counseling because they lacked the comfort of physical and emotional care. I know a couple who adopted two children in that situation, and the children required a great deal of counseling. Institutionalized children or children who have neglectful or abusive parents often have difficulties in life in forming loving relationships.

Toddlers and very young children often get loving attention because they have many needs. Under the watchful eyes of good, loving parents they grow in maturity and independence. Life gets busy in different ways with school-age children. Often children don’t express it, or may not realize it themselves, but they need to have physical contact with parents. Sometimes it can be a pat on the back, a hug, or a word of encouragement. Parents need to be aware of this need because as children get older, they want to be seen as strong and independent, especially teenagers.

As the cycle of life continues, young adults seek affection and love less from parents and more from their peers. Finally, most will find “the love of their life” and the hope is that it will be a lasting, loving, and intimate relationship. People marry, have children, and life goes on.

But what happens when people get older? As people age, life as they once knew it becomes different. Their bodies and minds may not function as well as when they were younger. It is a difficult adjustment for many. A spouse dies, and the person who had love and companionship for years now faces life alone. Friends and family may move away, or become ill or pass away. Often older people get depressed due to all the losses they experience. One of my former neighbors now lives with her daughter and son-in-law. She is a 96-year-old widow. Most of her family and friends have died. Yet she is cheerful, because she has the love and caring of her daughter and son-in-law.

The need for love, affection, and human contact remains strong throughout life. Think about those who live alone, are shut-ins, or are in a nursing home. If they don’t have loving visitors, they depend on the staff for physical contact. Some staff recognize this need and give them a hug, a kiss, or a friendly smile. How it perks them up!

From my own experience, my husband John and I visited my older sister, Ginny, and her husband, Del, in a nearby assisted living facility for six years. Ginny had Parkinson’s disease and Del’s mental health deteriorated into dementia while in the facility. Initially, our visits were upbeat. We met them in their apartment, gave them hugs and kisses and then went to the bistro on the first floor. The bistro had round tables and chairs and a snack bar with coffee, cookies, and fruit. Ginny and Del liked to go there; I’m sure to them it seemed as though they were entertaining us in their home. We brought them news of our family and showed them pictures of our adult children and our grandchildren. We asked them about their children and grandchildren as well. It was very pleasant. We went to the facility Christmas parties and Sunday-afternoon concerts. We tried to visit as much as possible because we knew their adult children had busy lives with their families and their jobs.

Time passed and both of them declined in their health. Visits for us became a labor of love. Often Ginny would be in an unresponsive state of Parkinson’s. She would have the “frozen” face that is sometimes characteristic of the disease and would not talk. Del would sit in his chair and repeat the same questions to us over and over. We always gave hugs and kisses and stayed a while, wondering if our visit did any good for them. Del always thanked us for coming. When Ginny was responsive, she did too.

Finally, after several hospitalizations and a severe decline in her health, we knew Ginny was facing death. We visited daily for three weeks while she went through the dying process. Most days, she would lie quietly in bed. I hugged her and sat in the chair next to the bed, holding her hand. She spoke very little and slept off and on. Finally, on a Friday, when we went to see her, she was silent. As she lay in her bed, looking up at me, I held her hand and we looked into each other’s eyes. We both smiled. I kissed her tenderly on the forehead. The next day, with Del, her seven children and their spouses, and her ten grandchildren at her bedside, the angels carried her to heaven.

Even in his dementia, Del knew Ginny was no longer here. We continued to visit him, listening to his repeated stories and answering his repeated questions. He loved to sing and remembered all the words to his favorite songs. At the facility concerts, he sang along with the entertainer. He still kept his sense of humor. The family called his corny jokes “Del-isms.” I had known Del since I was 16 years old. When he died 13 months after Ginny, I lost a brother.

What can we do to bring the gift of love and the comfort of the human touch to others? Here are some suggestions: Be present to a person. Be a listener. Sometimes people need to talk; other times, they may need to know that someone is just there. If you can’t visit, phone calls, emails, texts, Skype, or even an old-fashioned handwritten note or letter may help someone.

It is so important for us to be aware of everyone’s need for love and the human touch. When we reach out to others, we benefit as well as they. God created us to love and take care of each other until we are in His warm embrace.

Margaret McGullam is a retired registered nurse, mother of four, and grandmother of eleven. At her parish, St. John Nepomucene Church in Bohemia, New York, she has been a retreat team leader for 26 years. “The Comfort of the Human Touch” was originally given as a presentation at the Cenacle Retreat Center in Ronkonkoma, New York.

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