Redefining Intimacy Amid COVID-19

On a Saturday morning, numb and overwhelmed, I stared at the newspaper, jam-packed with dismal news, haunting images of makeshift field hospitals in Central Park, and numbers splashed across the headlines of the climbing death toll.

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As a mental health therapist and author of a book on sibling loss, I understand the world is grieving multiple losses and some we can’t name because they’re piling up in an overwhelming heap. One devastating blow after another. We grieve the death of people we know and the people we don’t know. We harbor anticipatory grief over those we might lose if this invisible enemy pounces on those we love. We cope with our mortality and awaken each day, taking inventory of our bodies. Every time we return home from a dreaded trip to the grocery store, we quarantine all over again and wait another two weeks before we know whether we’ve been infected. 

It wasn’t until my friend called that morning that I understood what I was grieving most deeply.

During our conversation as we parroted all we know about the virus, she asked me, “What do you miss most with this isolation?”

I inhaled a breath, squelching back a new bout of tears. “Hugs,” I said. According to Dr. Martin Seligman, to optimize our level of happiness and positivity, we should receive 9 hugs a day. Raised in a large Italian Catholic family, hugs and kisses were available in abundance. I never paused to relish in a hug. Now they’ve become more valuable to me than a satchel of gold as my daily embraces shrank to one and sometimes none. Wow, we’re grieving the loss of human touch, face to face contact; we are grieving the loss of intimacy. As I thought more about this loss and the lack of control I felt over the endless line of question marks about the future, one realization after another bumped into each other. 

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Few of us have had to confront a global pandemic, but prior to this, horrific events unfurled as the seconds ticked by and continue to. A homeless person froze to death, an elderly person fell in the bathroom and broke a hip, a single mother of five was convicted from her apartment. 

Before COVID-19, we awakened in the morning without sinking into anxiety and depression, pondering what impending tragedy might be awaiting us. On Wednesday, February 12, 2014, I woke up, made myself some coffee and opened my email. My sister-in-law in Hong Kong wrote to me that my younger brother Rocky was sick. He was in the hospital and expected to make a full recovery. Friday afternoon, he died. Life as I knew it had ended, even though the rest of the world continued. 

What makes a pandemic different from every-day upheavals in our lives is that the virus touches every human on the planet.

There has never been a more powerful time for us to experience and witness that we are part of a collective. We are one.

There is no greater intimacy than caring about people we don’t know and loving the face of a stranger. There is no greater intimacy than sacrificing our time with our family and friends to save others’ lives and protect our health care workers from choosing who lives and who dies because there are not enough ventilators. We can make these sacrifices with gratitude because lives depend on our self-isolation.

We’ve not lost intimacy; we are broadening our experiences of intimacy. We are seeing each other and showing compassion for strangers.

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An elderly man pushed his rollator walker in the rain as he headed to the back of the line at the grocery store when a woman at the front of the line said, “Please sir, go in front of me.” That’s intimacy. A stranger paid for groceries for the family behind him in line because he knew they were struggling. That’s intimacy. A young healthcare worker voluntarily signed up to be on the front lines of danger and work on the COVID-19 unit. That’s intimacy. We don’t have to go searching for the miracles happening around us; we simply need to open our eyes. 

What we water grows. We have the free will to react to this crisis in any way we choose. We can feed our anxiety and fears over the future. Impending doom can weigh us down. We can tumble headfirst into hysteria, panic, and thoughts like, “What’s the point, we’re all going to die.” “Our economy is crumbling around us.” “Life is never going to be the same.” We can feast on overconsumption of the news and satiate our darkest fears. We can believe we’ve lost control when we’ve never had it. We can unleash our anxieties on the people we are quarantined with. We can play our dismal mantras in our heads until we feel half-mad. We can but none of these thoughts or actions will change our reality. Though it’s critical we allow ourselves space and time to feel the sadness, we must go on.

WE CAN HOLD VIRTUAL HANDS AND WALK TOGETHER IN OUR STRENGTH, COURAGE, RESILIENCE, AND FORTITUDE. 

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Now is the time to live in the present moment and to see each other through, not see through each other. It’s a siren call to be of service, to feel purposeful, which is the best remedy to regain the pieces of our lives we can control. We do not have time to perseverate on a future we can’t predict, or to indulge in our regrets over how we’ve lived our lives. Thousands of people have stepped up to the big calls to service: healthcare workers, teachers, university professors, police officers, food banks, therapists, to list only a few that are working to help us take care of our physical and psychological well-being. 

We can also serve in a way that is smaller in scale but just as important: We can shop for an elderly neighbor. We can drop off dinner to a single mother. We can hand over a saved roll of toilet paper to someone who needs it. We can order takeout to support our restaurants. We can call and check on the more vulnerable family and friends in our lives. We can fan the flames of our passions, creating art in any exquisite form. We can use the power of our minds to infuse the world with loving and healing thoughts. We can create beauty amid the chaos. We don’t need to fear each other; we need to stand strong beside each other. 

In the grocery store, look into the eyes of the stranger six feet away from you.

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As you see each other, know you are working together to save each other’s life and feel the love and gratitude bloom in the space between you. We can deepen our understanding of intimacy and connection by serving. Into-me-you-see. Together, we can thrive under the blanket of a pandemic. 

10 thoughts on “Redefining Intimacy Amid COVID-19

  1. Such a stunning post my friend. We are indeed broadening our idea of intimacy. In some way there is even a kind of intimacy in the empty streets, because every person not there is absent for love of you. That’s love. As you so beautifully said: Let’s not see through each other, but see each other through. Love and a big, big hug, Yvon

  2. Beautifully written. Thank you, Susan, for your insight and gentle guidance in these trying times. Big hugs (even if only virtual) coming atchya from the other side of the country. Much love to you.

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