Why is it that my grief seems to give people permission to invade my personal space?
A total stranger and I are talking about our work, the way strangers do. We are on the patio at a club, and we’ve both had a few drinks, so the conversation is a little less coherent and a little more personal than it could be, but we are still an HR man and a middle school counselor discussing behavior change. “Some of my kids — a very small number of them,” I explain, ” are just so damaged that–”
“Are you damaged?” he asks.
It is a shockingly personal question; it makes me want him to back the hell off. I give him an answer that I expect to make him do exactly that:
“My son died in my arms. Of course I’m damaged!”
Bad call. He leans towards me and is just inches away when he asks, “Can I hug you?”
I let him. He’s too close at this point to stop without physically shoving him off me. But from this point on, I cannot get out of the conversation soon enough, and soon head for the ladies room, refuge of women trying to avoid That Guy.
However, before you start thinking that this kind of intrusiveness is a guy thing, let me tell you another story.
I’m speaking with a new coworker about the death of a student at our school, volunteering to research grief counseling resources for the child’s parents. I am perfectly calm and focused on the tragedy of the family in question as I explain to my coworker that because I myself had a son who died, I understand that grieving parents are likely to need help. Practically mid-sentence, my coworker dashes around her desk, saying “I need to hug you,” and puts her arms around me.
Sigh. What is the deal?
Or is it just me?
I think I need to “unpack” this.
First of all, I’m not one of those people who never wants a hug. In general, I like hugs. I like hugs from former students, from online friends I finally meet in person, and from my family both biological and chosen. I like brief celebratory hugs and long consoling hugs. Certainly, in the depths of grief I had that damn touch-me-and-I-melt-into-a-puddle-of-tears problem that made me back away from huggers, but nowadays hugs are fine. And sometimes, when suddenly slammed with a wave of grief, a hug is just what I need.
Maybe it’s just that I would rather not be hugged by people I don’t know? It’s true that I generally don’t like being touched by strangers.
There is an exception to this rule: I have never met a grieving parent I would not hug. Grieving parents…well, we’re a different species. Grieving birth mothers are literally the only other people who understand what it is to carry a person inside as part of you for months of your life, to give birth to him, and then to see him pass out of existence. The sorrow I hold within me meets the sorrow of another grieving parent and we are not strangers. I would never force a hug on a grieving parent, but I would also never turn one away.
It’s an unwanted sympathetic hug from a stranger that particularly creeps me out. That intimacy, that “Let me share your pain,” that stretch of foreign arms and intent into my personal space and my most raw and fragile emotional territory: it all makes me feel like something icky is crawling on me. And when it comes out of nowhere like that, it’s even worse; it’s like finding something icky that has crawled onto me without me knowing.
But it isn’t just hugs from strangers that bother me, the hugger can even be someone I see every day. And it isn’t just about the degree of familiarity, because I have times when I don’t want a sympathetic hug from anyone.
Funny how that word, “sympathy” comes up over and over when I’m talking about the kind of hugs I don’t want.
I suspect it has even more to do with sympathy’s next-door neighbor, pity. Pity assumes that the pitier has the higher ground. Grieving people don’t pity; we are pitied. We are assumed to be, by virtue of our loss, lesser. It’s the flip side of the equally obnoxious “You’re so strong!” trope. Why is it so damn hard to treat a grieving person as an equal, neither pitiable nor admirable, just human?
My resistance to hugs also stems from the assumption that it will make me feel better. Maybe it’s just me, but honestly, you need to know me pretty damn well to guess whether a hug is going to make me feel better or worse, whether the attention that the hug focuses on my sorrow is wanted or unwanted
And finally, there’s the vague sense I have that it isn’t really about making me feel better at all. It’s about making the hugger feel better.
There’s the core of my antipathy: Something is telling me that in the situations above, these people were hugging me because my grief made them uncomfortable. I told them that I have experienced a loss that they can hardly imagine and that new knowledge engendered anxiety in them. Hugging me eased that anxiety because they established themselves as the comforter — on the other side of a protective wall from a loss they suspect they themselves could not bear.
And that is ****ed up. Don’t you dare hug me because you cannot face my grief.
I understand that all this leaves the the caring, compassionate person with a dilemma when someone tells them about the death of a loved one: To hug or not to hug?
Let me see if I can help you with that…
Start with the relationship:
Are you friends? I mean actual friends, not people who happen to work in the same building, and particularly not people with an uneven power dynamic that might force the bereaved person to accept a hug that they would rather have declined.
Do the two of you hug on a regular basis, like hello and goodbye, or would this be the first time hugging?
Do you know them well enough to interpret their body language, vocal tone, and any other non-verbal cues?
Next, look at the circumstances:
Did the bereaved person choose to initiate the disclosure or was it in response to a question that could not be answered without that disclosure, for example, “So, do you have any kids?” or “What does your spouse do?”
Did they disclose their loss to you in a conversation about their loss, or in a conversation in which the information is relevant to some other topic? In other words, would a hug change the topic to their grief?
Are you a stranger or acquaintance in a setting in which any physical approach might feel potentially threatening, such as a dark street or alone in the room?
None of those questions are deal breakers either way (except that last one), but they should all be taken into account.
You know what shouldn’t be taken into account? You. Your needs. If you even think, “I’m just a hugger!” or, “I need to hug you!” then you are better off keeping your hands to yourself.
Finally, you could simply ask the person, “Would a hug help right now?” or “Would a hug be welcome?”
Does it feel too awkward to ask? That’s probably a sign that you shouldn’t hug.
You ask; the grieving person says no; you don’t hug; no harm.
You ask; they say yes; you hug; that’s better. For both of you.