I Don’t Want Your Hug:
A grieving mother’s meditation on the subject of hugs.
By Carrie Thompson
I’ve always thought of myself as a “hugger.” I’ve offered hugs to say hello after being apart and to say goodbye when parting for a while. I’ve given hugs to welcome, to comfort, to
congratulate, to console.
I never thought much about hugs — neither giving nor receiving them—until my son died of suicide. Now, I can’t get them out of my head: they are my new little mental fascination as I consider, catalog and categorize them into groups and subsets and try to make sense of them. My contemplation is both a distraction and a lifeboat, a way to make sense of senseless loss and colossal loneliness and profound, abiding grief.
First, I’ve realized that the power of a hug depends entirely on the context: who’s giving or
receiving it; the moment or emotion that occasions it. Hugs occur for a myriad of reasons, have many different durations, and are given to many different people. Politeness demands asking first: Need a hug? Can I hug you? Still, I’ve always given them freely if asked, offered, and accepted.
Ever since my son died, I have been turning hugs away with a gentle wave and a deflection: “I can’t right now. I’m not able. Thank you for the gesture; I’ll take a rain check.” It’s jarring to the person offering, but at this point there’s a tenuous dam between a flood of tears and emotion that I am doing my best to hold back. In the darkest moments, I wonder if I’ll ever be able to accept a hug again, but I reassure myself that this is a temporary moratorium and not a permanent state.
I’ve also begun categorizing hugs. While the categories are still fuzzy, the hugs
themselves — the ones given, received, and even refused — stand out like headlights in this fog that envelops my spirit.
The night Ben died, there were hugs to hold us together. These are the ones borne of
desperation, in the moment where the horror and shock are so shattering that the only answer, the only possible remedy, is holding each other, clutching onto someone else so as not to collapse into tiny shards, never to be whole.
My youngest son coming at a run, wrapping his arms around me as shrieks of grief and denial exploded from my body, both of us on our knees, while my husband sobbed on the phone after breaking the news that our beloved son was deceased. He and I clung to each other as we tried to understand, both of our hearts bursting with the shock, despair, and grief. I have no idea how long it was before either of us could breathe, but I remember his presence, trying to be strong for his mother despite his own shock. His arms, his strength even as he too was trying to absorb this awful news, were the only thing that pulled me back from shattering completely.
My older brother, sleep-fogged, coming to his door after I woke him in the middle of the night, pounding on the door, crying. He finally answered, angry at being woken, but knowing that I wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t something awful. “You need to come to Mom’s right now. Ben died; they think he took his own life; you need to be with her.” His face, white, processing, sleep giving way to shock, remains a brilliant photo in my brain.. “What?!” I remember reaching for him. “My baby is dead please hold me for a minute.” I started to cry again, the sobs coming from somewhere deep inside, where the love for my children was now mixing with the grief of losing one of them. My brother’s arms surrounded me and I clutched at him, sobbing. It might have been the first time he’s ever hugged me for that long, that tightly, but it gave me just enough strength to get back in the car. “Come to Mom’s. I have to tell her. I need you there.”
My mother looking so peaceful, sleeping, that I hesitated for a long moment before waking her, knowing I was going to break her heart. *Mom. Wake up. Mommy.” Even as I said it, it occurred to me that I never call her Mommy… I pulled her into my arms as I told her. “Ben died mom.” This time it was me holding her together as she absorbed it. When she started to cry, sobbing that she knew he was sick, that he’d always been sick, I pulled away. “I can’t do this now Mom. I can’t. I’m leaving.” I’m not proud of retreating from her embrace so abruptly. My only excuse is that my own spirit was shattering, and I didn’t feel strong enough at that moment to manage her grief and mine. So I peeled away from her, handed her off to my brother, and walked away, headed to my car, Sam behind me. “They are taking him to Bangor sweetie. I’m going there to meet him. You can come or stay.” He came with me, unwilling to stay in the face of my mother’s stress.
My son and I again, sitting in silence on a bench overlooking the Penobscot river in the small hours of the morning, in the quiet, alone with our thoughts. We had our arms around each other, not quite a hug but close enough. No words, just mutual comfort and love. The silence was broken occasionally as I called the police contact at Ben’s apartment, looking for confirmation that I could see Ben and take our world off pause.
Hugs of solace, connection, and restoration of the spirit seems a useful category. Of these, I can still feel four of them when I close my eyes and breathe.
A Bangor police officer. He escorted me to see my beloved son’s body for the first time, and he seemed not a minute older than Ben. His voice was gentle as he reminded me of the deal I’d struck with the state medical examiner: “You may see him, but you cannot touch his body.” I nodded, took a deep breath, and went into the room.
The sobs welled up from the depths of my shattered heart. That tiny, stubborn ember of hope, that they had it wrong and it wasn’t my Ben, drowned in tears as I hit my knees, broken beyond words. “My love my baby my sweet sweet boy. Oh my sweet love. My love my baby…” I don’t know what else I said, but I remained on that floor, sobbing, until calm set in, acceptance perhaps, or at least exhaustion. I stared at the police officer. “I guess I can go now. Thank you for being here so I could see him. I just- I needed to do that.” He nodded, his sadness for me, for my grieving, shattered mother’s heart, evident in his soft gaze.
“That was hard,” he observed gently. “Do you want a hug?” I shook my head; I was just too drained, and he was a stranger, and it seemed so futile. There was no consoling this grief. He spread his arms slightly. “Could I have a hug?”
I’m a mother. His gentle request couldn’t be denied. I wrapped my arms around him, he around me, and my body melted, my head against his shoulder, feeling him breathing through his body armor. No tears, just a moment of solace, of warmth, of human contact, of life in that dark, heartbroken moment. We parted after a long moment and I thanked him again. I realize now that I’ll never forget that hug, and that I don’t know his name.
My husband Eric. His face was streaked with tears and deeply lined with grief when he finally joined me in our room at my mother’s. He’d just driven the 4 hours from home, and he collapsed into the bed, head on my shoulder. His soft sobbing tore at my soul. I kissed his hair and hugged him as he cried, at last able to connect with me as the two of us began coming to terms with the reality of our son’s death.
I didn’t cry at that moment, because Eric needed to let his grief out, and I worried that if I cried too, he might stop. “Let it out my love. Let it go.” The shudder of his shoulders gradually diminished to stillness until the two of us simply laid there in silence, holding onto each other, desperately trying not to lose ourselves in the unthinkable shock and sadness of this colossal loss.
My daughter. I had been out with Eric, meeting with the funeral director, beginning the business of death: cremation, boxes, obituaries, do you want keepsake jewelry, what kind of service? The questions seemed as endless as the loss. We had also gone to Ben’s house and gotten clothes for them to dress Ben’s body so it would be less jarring for Eric and our kids.
I was so drained by the time we got back to my mother’s that just seeing my daughter felt like coming up for air after diving to the bottom of a deep lake. I didn’t realize until I saw her how desperately I wanted her there, how much I physically longed for her presence. We hugged, tightly, each of us taking comfort from the other, both of us quietly crying. Life, and breath, and love.
She was there, and as I held her tightly it occurred to me that my family, in its new form, was together. We were four now: my husband, our daughter and son, and me physically present, and Ben missing, present only in our hearts and memories. Her quiet strength in that moment reassured me that the four of us could — that the four of us would — see each other through.
My nephew. The morning after Ben’s funeral, he gave me a gift that will sustain me for a long time. I pronounced myself a mess and began to cry, sobbing, overwhelmed with the knowledge that this was real, that we had just the day before said goodbye to Ben. The initial shock was dissipating, but the grief was somehow intensifying. As my nephew wrapped his arms around me and held me tightly, it struck me that he is nearly the same height as my Ben, that his build is similar, and that they share blood and history. I took so much comfort in that moment. Me, crying, half apologizing, and him, solid, quiet, patient, and strong. “I’ll hug you as long as you want, Aunt Carrie.” He understood.
The Sad Hugs from Crying Loved Ones are their own category. There were some, like my beloved niece, my sisters in law, and my dad, whom I love and who were some of the first people I called, whom I wanted to hold because they just wanted to give me their love. My Aunties fell into that category. They loved Ben, and knew him, and there were times their hugs kept me standing in those early days of shock and grief.
Uncomfortable But Well Meaning Hugs is another. I hugged so many people at the calling hours — I think they should really be called The Family Stands Awkwardly and Lets People Hug Them and Tries to Remember What Is Said and Who Said It — that I lost count. There were the grabbing ones that pulled me in and the back-patting, too-tight ones and the the rocking ones where I was swayed side to side. The hugs were begun more out of custom, but even while I found the idea draining, I knew they were acts of compassion and empathy, so I accepted them as such.
The Hugs From Ben’s Friends tore at my heart in ways I couldn’t foresee. They were all so gentle and sweet and tentative that I wanted to hold them all tightly and not let go. He had so many similar-aged friends, some who drove hours to pay their respects, all of them reeling in the face of their own sudden vulnerability to death and grief. “I’m so sorry.” “Ben helped me pass physics.” “We studied together in the library many late nights.” One after the other, they came past me, and I spoke to each of them and hugged them willingly if they offered. Ben was so loved. He mattered to them, and they wanted me to know.
There were two hugs that I simply own, that I cannot categorize. They were a gift from a mother to her son’s traumatized, grief-stricken girlfriend, the young woman who found him, who was completely broken by that sight and by the profound loss of “her person.” The first time I actually met her in person was at the funeral home, Ben laying dressed in his favorite tie-dye sweatshirt. I held her hands gently. “It’s okay to be angry with him. You have a divine right to anger at finding him like that. It is okay to love and be angry.” As she melted into me, her deep, wracking sobs shook us both. She needed that permission, and coming from Ben’s mom, it was a relief.
I would hug her again a few days later, after the funeral, standing up to my knees in the Penobscot river as we both cried, her longing and loss mirroring my own, as the knowledge that he was gone settled past the shock and into our bones and the cracks in our wounded souls.
And then there was Ben. When I could finally touch him, I hugged him for a long time. I
remember how his hair smelled the same, felt the same, thick and coarse, just like mine. I gave him good night hugs and kisses, my tears soaking his hair. We had a song for them, and I sang it, making the motions as I did. A big big hug and a little little hug and a big big kiss and a little little kiss and a big big Eskimo and a little little Eskimo… I did them all and then kissed his forehead again. My sweet gentle young man. I held him for as long as I could because I didn’t want to leave him, even in death.
Because there’s this. There is one hug that I cannot get out of my head. The night Ben died, after dinner, I held him, alive, laughing, happy. I held him tightly. “It’s so good to see you tonight my love. I’d love to do sushi tomorrow. Call me and I’ll come get your boards and we can make a plan for dinner. I love you sweetie.” “I love you too, Mom.” And I let him go. I watched him for a long moment. My heart was light. I watched him get behind the wheel and drive away, smiling at the condition of his old beat-up car.
So no, I don’t want your hug. I want that one. I want that hug, in that moment. I want the hug I revisit in my dreams. In my dreams, I try to hold on, but he slips away. He always slips away, and I wake, thinking about hugs. The last one, the one I’ll never feel again. That’s the one that stays with me… that’s the one I’m afraid I’ll forget if I hug you instead.
If you or someone you know are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or text HOME to 741741. Go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
About the Author: Carrie Thompson teaches American Literature and Film Studies in NH where she lives with her husband of 30+ years, 3 cats and a dog.
Image Credit: Jules Charles Boquet “Le Deuil” Public Domain