“I can’t believe he is gone.” My sunken red eyes stare back from the mirror, dishevelled shoulder-length hair, pale complexion, and sunken cheeks. The image in the mirror haunting me is the version of myself after losing 29 pounds during a 15-day battle with the COVID-19 virus. During that time, my wife and two sons also contracted, fought, and recovered from the virus, and I lost my father.
My father passed away due to complications from Type 2 diabetes. Passed away in a hospital surrounded by my mother and sister, each holding his hand and singing to him. Gone at 75, which in today’s day of science and intervention medical is quite early.
We were confronted with the prospect of planning a funeral, around the mandates and restrictions of the COVID reality. The effort of the province to create guidelines felt less like sound public policy and more like scrambling in response to a situation that should have had some preparation. It felt like being caught up in a drama of trying to change a tire while the car is still moving. Limited to 50 people inside, barely enough for immediate and extended family, and 200 outside. How could they rob us of our grieving process and public support? The plan was adjusted to be outside and hope for the best, and thankfully, that Friday in autumn was the sunniest and warmest of the week.
Standing there with a handful of earth sprinkling through my fingers, staring at the casket being lowered into the grave, my heart following every foot it descended, I suddenly felt the sun warming my back like a friend’s hand, bringing peace. In retrospect that was the day I realized how much touch impacts us. Throughout the day there were countless shoulder squeezes, arm grabs, and bear hugs from friends, family, and some strangers. All in an effort to tell us we matter, and we are not alone. What would have happened to us without all that touch?
Thinking outside of myself later, the idea of touch kept coming back. How many elderly were wasting and dying alone without anyone to hold their hand? How many children during the pandemic were waiting for the touch, hug or hair-ruffle of a teacher and now were confined at home?
I remember being in college when I heard about touch deficit, about babies in orphanages in Eastern Europe who are totally healthy but die because there is no one to hold them. Read about the studies on infant rats related to Beta-endorphins (which affect insulin and growth hormone) and how the mammalian lick and touch could speed up growth. About Dr. Tiffany Fields in Miami who researched how massaging infants not only contributed to them being released earlier, but that touch phenomenon continued on in physical and cognitive growth even after they left the hospital and the supervision of the nurses.
Through this pandemic, will we as adults be able to recognize when we are in a touch deficit? With Zoom being our interaction with the pandemic what negative effects will we see?
Touch is essential to our spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical well-being. Here are 5 signs that you may be falling into touch deficit or skin hunger.
Loneliness: People often exhibit this by clinging to animals, wrapping up in blankets, and seeking out long baths as a way to replace physical warmth. This can also lead to feeling alienated from people which causes individuals to pull away from social interaction directly affecting mental health.
Mental health: Issues such as depression and anxiety have been shown to be reduced when treated with a healing touch. Early research indicated those suffering from touch deficit may have a harder time expressing and interpreting emotions as seen in orphans and children left in hospitals for a long convalescence.
Aggression: Again another reference to Dr. Tiffany Fields who studied French and American teens, the American teens hugged and touched peers less and exhibited more aggressive behaviour. When treated with massage the same teens’ behaviours were mitigated and this seems to be associated with serotonin levels.
Increased levels of stress: It is theorized that an individual experiencing stress as well as touch deficit suffers more. In research of children who have platonic touch and associate touch positively, they have lower levels of cortisol present in their bodies. This is due to touch receptors under the skin that respond and aid in relaxing and unwinding, even lowering blood pressure.
Poor emotional relationships: No one wants to be that girl/guy who struggles to form attachments. It is possible to be in touch deficit and yet fear attachment to people. After all, this would be a foreign concept. As science is learning how the communal touch orientates us in our social group and how it can affect the brain and behaviour, the lack of touch can harm.
So maybe through this pandemic, and the slow process of realizing a new normal, we need to attend to a part of our developmental physiology not mentioned by the talking heads. Do you have a friend to hug, a partner or spouse to trade a 30 min back rub? If not, maybe this is the time to spend that money on a massage from a registered practitioner.
Kenneth Joshua Boyko lives in Ponoka County.