Longing for Touch
By Irina Poleshchuk | Image Pauliina Mäkelä
The coronavirus pandemic has caused a great loss of life in various countries around the world. Many of us who survived 2020 and 2021 lost loved ones and never had the chance to be near, touch, caress, and hug those who were dying in hospital, often alone, isolated, and despairing. This cautious approach, taken due to fears of spreading infection, was, of course, understandable. We stay away without any possibility to be in touch with our parents, children, and partners. What goes unspoken in these difficult times is a completely other experience. There is another group of people who have recorded encounters with those who have passed on. They describe situations when they have been contacted by loved ones who died from the pandemic. In the article “They lost their loved ones to Covid. Then they heard from them again” published on CNN’s website in June 2021, John Blake explains that “these experiences can be subtle: relatives appearing in hyper-real dreams, a sudden whiff of fragrance worn by a departed loved one, or unusual behaviour by animals. Other encounters are more dramatic: feeling a touch on your shoulder at night, hearing a sudden warning from a loved one, or seeing the full-bodied form of a recently departed relative appear at the foot of your bed”.
These experiences of encountering ghosts are commonly known in psychology as after death communications, or ADCs. What meanings do these contacts have for us? Feeling a touch on a shoulder, feeling a hug, or a light smell of perfume can restore a sense of common space, of loving and being loved, of being touched but also of being granted another chance to touch the loved one.
In our contemporary world, with the rapid rise of technology and virtual communication, we are gradually losing one of the most fundamental ways of being together: touch. The pandemic has proven again that touch remains the mediator of our being present with another person. It locates us in space and in the moment of now. It enables strong emotions, a feeling of empathy, of sharing common space, of unconditional responsibility and love. In the CNN article, one of the witnesses says “that was the hardest thing, you can’t say goodbye and you can’t be there as an advocate for your loved one, which is difficult because you have somebody who’s in the hospital, who’s scared and not used to being alone.” Touching is a silent response that says “I am here.”
‘‘In this way of thinking, seeing, smelling or feeling a touch of the ghost is to see beneath signals of mono-optic perception. It is an amplification of all our senses, an attempt to restore a space of touching and being touched, a longing for the touch of the other which will never happen.’’
Touch also gives awareness and understanding of one’s own flesh, or, in a more general sense, of our embodiment and of the embodiment of the other. Touching, or being tactile, outlines personal borders as well as shared tangible space. It shows us reciprocity. It also conveys the sensitivity of our flesh and skin. In his recent book Touch (2021), Richard Kearny writes that “touch is tactful when it is mutually beneficial for the persons involved”.¹ Touch creates proximity, and is an intimate form of listening, hearing, and responding to others. Often, touch remains a preconscious form of experience and only later do we impart meaning to it.
John Blake gives us an example of Ian Horne’s witness. Describing an encounter with his dead wife, Horne says, “It’s as if she’s in the room with me. It’s enough to snap me awake, and I’m a deep, hard sleeper. Call it an auditory hallucination or what you want, but I definitely hear it.” Touching is the way we stay in connection with the feelings of other people, and in return we are also touched and affected by them. Often in relationships touch is about holding a balance between keeping distance in proximity, with respect and responsibility for the other, but it is also about being close, feeling skin contact with the other. The proximity of touch is when we are careful not to impose ourselves and, at the same time, not to surrender entirely without defining our space. But what happens with this proximity when our loved ones are gone without leaving us any chance for the last hug, kiss, and touch? Another witness, Jackson, says: “Her touch was cold, like she had just come from outside.” The sensation of touch is always reversible; however, despite its reversibility, the touch still remains uncompleted. The touch does not receive a response when someone close to us dies and that person is no longer present anymore with us. “It was overwhelming,” Jackson says. “It’s hard to put into words. I felt touched by that. It’s obvious that she’s around and she’s visiting me.”
In his essay “Eye and Mind” (The Primacy of Perception, 1964) Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes our embodied perception as “tactile seeing”. Tactile seeing can also be formulated as a sort of holistic insight which restores a shared touch, gives a conscious understanding of our flesh, and forms a double vision where we see once again with the “eyes of the heart” and not of the mind. In this way of thinking, seeing, smelling or feeling a touch of the ghost is to see beneath signals of mono-optic perception. It is an amplification of all our senses, an attempt to restore a space of touching and being touched, a longing for the touch of the other which will never happen. But also, as Richard Kearny puts it, feeling the presence of our beloved one “marks the moment when sight becomes insight”,² when there is still an event of togetherness, when touching, seeing, sensing, and also being touched are possible in this dimension of reality.
¹ Kearny 2021, 11.
² Kearny 2021, 26.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Primacy of Perception and the Other Essays on Phenomenological Psychology, the Philosophy of Arts, History and Politics. Trans. James M. Edie. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1964.
Kearny, Richard. Touch: Recovering our Most Vital Sense. New York: Columbia University Press. 2021