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September 5, 2015 / 21 Elul, 5775
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Touch, the Better Alternative

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(Names and situations changed where requested)

Words do not always come out right. They don’t always express the depth of our emotions or what we want to say. Sometimes, when the pain of another is really great, there are no words that can give solace. Often they can’t even come close. It is at that time that a touch, a hug, a squeeze of the arm or shoulder can go further to express what you want to say. It can often give more support, make a person feel better than any words.

Just as a nigun (a song without words) can express and convey an emotion more clearly and deeply than a song with lyrics, so too touch can often give your message with greater clarity and mean more than words themselves.

Fraidy had suffered the worst freak of nature. She had lost her youngest child. Her daughter was only six when a car accident had stolen her from them. Fraidy’s pain was beyond consolation. Family times and holidays like Purim, school plays, hearing Ma Nishtana (the four questions) recited by others were the worst for her. At these moments, memories of her daughter crowded her brain and heart and gave her unbearable times of pain.

The passing of time hadn’t helped. On the Purim after her daughter’s death, though many months had passed, Fraidy’s friend saw her coming out of the washroom red eyed. Not able to find the words, her friend simply walked over and put her arms around her and held her for a few moments. Fraidy told me she appreciated the silence, the closeness, more than she could any words. She got the message of support and caring, the very strong message, with no need to respond and say something in return. It really helped her through the day.

After years of dealing with her husband’s deteriorating illness, P’nina was facing placing him in a nursing home. It was a difficult decision that came with pain, guilt, fear, loneliness and a gamut of emotions that were too difficult to cope with or discuss. P’nina had just spent an evening with a friend. They had had a pleasant time and her husband’s placement wasn’t even discussed. This didn’t mean it wasn’t on P’nina’s mind. It was always there, just under the surface.

Her friend knew this and sensing her pain and reluctance to talk just now, simply put her hand on her shoulder as she dropped her off at home and said, ‘Take care.’ The lingered squeeze of the shoulder said more than words ever could. P’nina got the message and was grateful for it and the way it was sent.

Chaim had lost his battle with his chronic illness. He knew he was deteriorating and there was little hope of him ever going home again. His need for care was too great for his wife to manage at home. Chaim was feeling very depressed when his friend walked into his hospital room for a visit. The last thing Chaim wanted was light conversation. Sensing this, Chaim’s friend simply sat by his bedside and started to sing a nigun very quietly.

After a few moments, Chaim joined in. No words were spoken. Chaim’s friend put his hand on his arm as they sat there, in his hospital room, singing quietly over and over a nigun that seemed to reach the depth of Chaim’s soul. Chaim told me that the wordless support helped him that day more than any words ever could.

Though touch can break barriers and express more than words, it can also build barriers and be destructive. You need to be intuitive in a situation and as with everything, take your cues from the person you want to help. Sense the person’s need. Never push yourself on someone. Notice their reaction to what you do (as hopefully you would to what you say). If there is a tightening of the body when you take their hand, hug or touch a shoulder, back off. Never push yourself on anyone or force them to accept your non-verbal expressions of support. But if the person responds to your touch with their body language, grasps your hand back or puts their hand on yours, know you are doing the right thing. You may even be doing the most helpful thing you can at the moment.

Even just sitting with someone in silence can have an incredible healing power. Your caring will come through more powerfully and poignantly than in any other way, without even saying a word.

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