The Healing Power of Hugs: Life In Context of the Pittsburgh Shooting

I love hugs.

I feel like, in a way, these shows of affection are pushed aside and labeled incorrectly; I mean much more when I say I love hugs.

I was a January baby.

My mom and dad held me in their arms, I don’t need to remember that because I know it happened.

I was held throughout my entire infancy.

When you’re so fragile someone else needs to hold you, you can’t hold yourself, you can’t sustain yourself you are dependent on those hugs.

I have a twin brother.

When we liked each other, we hugged.

When we were tiny, wrinkly little humans I’m imagining us having held hands, loosely we couldn’t even see.

My mom called me ‘honey’ like many moms do their daughters, my brother thought that was my name.

Honey was my nickname until I was 6.

He and I probably hugged as toddlers while learning to walk, I know once I started walking I couldn’t stop.

Hugs allow us to understand love and affection at a young age.

Sometimes we get them when we need it, sometimes we don’t.

When I fell on the metal playground after a rainy day I got a hug from my dad, I was crying.

When you’re crying, most people naturally want to be embraced.

Your feelings are given validity when you wrap your arms around someone else who, for all you know, may be experiencing the same pain.

In fifth grade when two boys drew red swastikas all over their notebooks, on their hands and showed it to me because they knew it scared me. They told me if I did something that made them mad they would just draw it more.

They were punished but I never forgot those weeks.

I would like to think my friends hugged me then.

But that pain, sometimes one hug isn’t enough.

I was 13 when my father was in the hospital, over 2 months.

I paced around one of my teacher’s rooms frantic one morning in panic.

They paced with me, sat with me, they gave me a hug that day and when he came home.

The necklace they gave me from my Bat Mitzvah was the first way I could show others “I’m Jewish”,

No fear.

I graduated from my middle school and I rushed over to give that same person a hug because I was so, happy.

Like I said, I love hugs.

But, there’s also times you wish you didn’t need those hugs.

When you’re struggling with depression as a freshman in high school and every month you tell someone but they don’t know what to do, nor do you.

When that depression couples with an eating disorder that leads you to lose over 20 pounds in a couple of months for which someone sees it every month you see them. “You look so thin” mistaken for a compliment on your clothes.

You wish their hug every time you say hello and every time you say goodbye would bring back all the happiness and youthful ignorance, but no longer because you now step out into the world as your own person.

Independence is what we reach for at that age but when someone is not there to give us a hug when we need it, we start seeing that “I love hugs” comment as not being as cutesy.

We see it as necessary and we wish we could go back to freshman year in that classroom just so someone could listen.

As if loneliness is all that remains, now.  

February 24, 2016, two hours someone sat with me to keep me safe.

They wanted a warm, snug hug to just make ‘it’ go away.

It doesn’t and it comes back from time to time, but the hug, the handheld in the moment made me feel like someone was listening.

I was young I was sick that’s all I wanted, considering I couldn’t worry enough about myself.

I started recovery December 4, 2016.

Almost two years ago.

Recovery isn’t linear. You sometimes have to go back.

I returned to school in January 2017.

My friends ran down the hallway to give me hugs, my teachers who saw a new, healthy side of me that was gone for a long time gave me hugs.

The people who saw me through recovery,

Their hugs were the warmest.

You probably have needed, wanted or recieved a hug like this.

One that makes you feel safe, that all is right in the world if not only in the world that surrounds you and that other person even if all is in shambles, chaos.

Even if your closely interwoven Jewish community no longer feels safe on those darker days.

Those warm, caring people that give those warm, caring hugs, they’re the best people.

Senior year of high school was a, recovery high I like to say.

I gave hugs every morning I left my human geography class and stood in the 3rd floor annex of the dirty dice hallway because if I wanted to be happy and give happy hugs then I will dammit!

I stood on stage at graduation openly discussing my eating disorder too, what, hundreds of people?

No fear.

 

Now let’s fast forward to the past 30 days. Shloshim in Hebrew.

November 26, 2018, there was an event in Pittsburgh commemorating the end of the 30 day mourning period in Judaism.

11 people were killed at the Tree of Life, New Light, and Dor Hadash congregations in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh, PA on October 27, 2018.

November 26 marks 30 days after the attack.

Each day is simply a day after the attack.

Each month, each year is, after the attack.

There now exists a before and after.

And you ask me why I am writing a post about the power of hugs.

 

I love hugs.

I love hugs and I readily give hugs.

Recently I’ve felt like that’s all I’ve needed but yet I cannot be home for those.

Not until November 9-11, 2018,

Two weeks after the shooting,

I went home to Pittsburgh from Brandeis.

Quick decision, made a few days after the shooting.

I had to go home.

I had to see my people because the hugs in Boston, honestly, meant nothing if they weren’t coming from home.

I watched the vigils on TV, every news source I opened was covered in these and more words: “Squirrel Hill”

“Tree of Life”

“Pittsburgh”

“Pittsburgh” “Pittsburgh”.

I had to go home.

 

The day it happened I was going to Einstein’s on campus,

The usual chai latte and bagel with cream cheese.

I got there a little before 11 A.M. so I waited for it to open.

A text from my friend came through of a picture from the news,

And then it happened.

It happened.

And it kept happening in my mind every time I think back to that day because my heart thuds to my stomach as if reaching the bottom of a cavern. It hasn’t stopped because every time I begin to think of that day and how I thudded to the floor of the bathroom and I felt like no one was there to catch me through my friend was right in front of me….

I push it away. I push it away and from that I feel like I’m pushing away any sort of comfort.

I didn’t go back to Einstein’s on a weekend before it opened until a month later.

 

I opened the bathroom stall and held onto my friend as if it were the last thing I could do,

I bawled on the floor while my friend held my hand.

I sat in the Hillel lounge having no words,

No words,

To say to this woman I’ve known for, a few months now but at that moment she felt like a stranger and I felt scared.

I wanted a hug to legitimize my pain, to make it feel understood and because in no time in my life have I felt less safe as a Jew besides that time in fifth grade.

Drawing swastikas isn’t even that bad….

I stood at the Boston vigil and wanted to hold a familiar hand, because that’s when I needed it,

But instead a woman who I’ve only known for a few months walked out of the crowd with me as I bent over weeping.

It was embarrassing not healing and it had nothing to do with this kind soul who just wanted her hand to be enough to help me.

I had to keep myself composed because I felt like no one understood.

Maybe they tried but how could I see that less than a day after my Jewish community was torn apart and no simple hug could repair that?

People were hugging each other but I wasn’t home and everything just seemed like a smokescreen.

Pain, so much pain and those hugs people were getting back home I wasn’t getting here.

 

I saw photos from every funeral.

I saw the processions in front of Beth Shalom, Rodef Shalom the streets were closed for a week or more.

The FBI didn’t leave until a few days before I came. The metal bars surrounding the synagogue didn’t move until the memorial had to be.

On November 8 at night I drove from Pittsburgh International through Squirrel Hill,

Stopping at my Jewish day school,

The clock had gone past midnight but we pulled across from Tree of Life.

On November 9 at 12 A.M. I sat outside,

No coat just a sweater.

A young woman drove by asking if I wanted her coat.

No one was on the roads but she saw me and asked.

I felt warmth then.

Wasn’t a hug, but an offer of warmth.

November 9 at 8:00 A.M.

I went back to my day school,

The person who I ran to hug at graduation I hugged again in a dimmed room filled with young children, learning.

We maybe hugged on five different occasions that weekend.

Relief washed over me the moment I saw she was there,

Sitting when she looked up and smiled at me, she wasn’t okay but she was safe.

No one was okay that weekend every hug had heaviness,

Nevertheless they were there.

She was there Friday morning.

She picked up the phone Saturday morning.

She was there to hold my hand as she left Sunday morning.

My feelings were given validity when I wrapped my arms around her around everyone, I know she’s experiencing the same pain.

Those five hugs meant more than anything could.

 

I walked around seeing other young children learning,

Two weeks after the shooting,

13 days exactly,

They are healing.

How is that healing being done? Well healing is a funny thing, complicated.

Some heal through crying,

Catharsis:

Look it up because that is a, wonderful word.

Some heal through holding hands, hugging others, being physically present.

Some heal through presence in the mind because what are we if we are not there.

What if young Jewish children at this day school were to live in constant fear,

If their educators were to stand still,

If who we are is clouded by a thick smoke of trauma therefore none of it can be confronted and processed,

What do we do if we let this person win?

We don’t.

I didn’t when I went home.

I let hugs prevail and with each person it was a reunion.

A reunion that may never feel the same with any person ever again.

I hugged my former teachers extra close,

I held the hand of a teacher I only passed by in the hallway at my day school extra tightly.

I smiled extra brightly not because I was happy but because I was relieved.

I went to the Second Floor at the JCC in Squirrel Hill and the people I used to work with,

Adults, mind you,

Lined up to give me hugs they were all so,

Relieved,

Though happiness fits as well.

There were three people I needed to see, to hug the most when I was home.

I couldn’t tell you why because I don’t know.

The person who saw me through my eating disorder, sickness and recovery, the good bad and ugly very few have seen, He was one of them.

Guess the other two.

The six of us ate lunch together,

My first normal conversation while still acknowledging the elephant the size of life in the room.

I knew I couldn’t do that at Brandeis.

Lunch at Curry on Murray -

If you don’t know Forbes and Murray, well us Pittsburghers do -

Pineapple curry and rice I couldn’t finish but the moment with this dear, loving friend,

Man was it surreal.

I ran up to hug her the minute we exchanged eye contact.

Friendship.

Coffee on Forbes Avenue, Coffee Tree or Commonplace to be honest I get them mixed up,

Starbucks too but irrelevant.

Each person I met with I hugged them and each meant something different.

Friday evening Shabbat services,

For the sake of formalities I don’t hug my rabbi,

But frankly his handshake has the same power as a hug.

Prayers were said silently or not at all,

Numbness sank in and the hug at my friend’s house late at night was left incomplete.

The love is always there,

Clouded right now.

Shabbat morning services at Beth Shalom with four kind, brave police officers outside.

They don’t want to have to be doing that job more than anyone wants to have to see them there.

Warm smiles were exchanged as I came in.

I was able to daven (pray), finally,

I felt embraced by my silk prayer shawl and the words of prayer,

More hugs, one much longer and more snug than the rest but in that way much more needed.

Shabbat shiur (class) followed by a talk,

A handshake ending that, what, 20 or 30 minute exchange.

It goes back to those three people.

Sunday morning Hebrew class recreating some form of normalcy where there didn’t seem to exist any.

A final hug from the third person in “those three people” I keep mentioning,

Until December Pittsburgh.

 

I touched down in Boston Logan with the hugs in my heart and the warmth of them wrapped around me like a warm blanket,

You have to keep your baby safe in a warm blanket, that is their security.

My parents’ hugs were my warmth.

My twin grasping my hand as a newborn - which I can only guess happened - that is security.

As you get older you find your own version.   

 

Once I got home and got those hugs,

Coming back I knew I could truly receive the hugs and return the same love.

People I know are in pain.

In pain from Pittsburgh in pain from others in pain from themselves,

Life is scary.

This is why every time I see someone in distress I want to be by their side.

I did before but I feel I need to now.

I see someone post a warning sign online and I DM them,

I hear warning signs in conversation and I confront them,

I see someone’s text that they need to talk and I call immediately.

I only started calling recently I needed to hear people’s voices, same as the day of the shooting on the floor of the bathroom.

I make time to talk because I know how much that can mean in a time of fear,

Fear has been present every day in this time of shloshim.

I don’t think it will end just because shloshim has.

The thirty days have passed in Pittsburgh but I feel like not a day has passed because I cannot look into my own eyes and see that day.

I push it away while I push away the possible comfort.

I’m not in Pittsburgh so how do I heal when that is all my mind can see?

If I am not in Pittsburgh to receive hugs every day does that mean I cannot heal? What do those hugs from November 9-11 mean then?

What does this whole post mean?

I don’t know.

Can hugs repair this pain present now as I write this post?

I don’t know.

Hugs are healing but like every human we have our limitations, there is only so much we can do for others.

But there is so much we can do for ourselves.

And yeah that hug from ourselves can be powerful,

That love coming from inside yourself can mean more than anyone else’s sometimes,

But does that mean we are not allowed to want the physical embrace of another human being? Human contact, we crave that for a reason.

 

With this in mind,

In a time where I see my friends and family in Pittsburgh getting endless warm hugs,

Maybe consider that this Pittsburgh girl,

Who as a toddler ran off the minute she learned to walk,

Who in fifth grade didn’t understand the true impact of antisemitism,

Who in high school didn’t know I was sick,

Who now doesn’t know how to be okay again even after this timeline of hugs,

She is yearning for her home that doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

 

She needs a hug, too.