Being an in-law is weird. Legitimately weird. You find the person that you want to spend the rest of your life with and that’s wonderful, but there are relationships attached to that person. For good or ill, you get an additional family to the one you grew up with. I am lucky to have lovely in-laws. We get along quite well and like each other. But it is still true that I didn’t grow up with the people that I have been related to for the last five years.
Normally, this is not a problem. Death is not a normal situation and thus weirdness ensues. But not, interestingly, from the family itself.
I am in the curious position of being an inside outsider. I am close to the family but not intimate with it. In spite of knowing them for ten years, I have less history with my in-laws than any of the friends my husband grew up with. And there are a lot of friends. A. Lot. Of. Friends.
When a bereavement happens, friends tend to hug you. I have no problem with this. I am very fond of getting and receiving hugs. Any of my friends can attest to this. It turns out, I have a caveat: I need to know the person first. Now, there are a lot of people down here that I do know. I’ve hung out with many of my husband’s childhood friends and I consider them friends as well. This caveat does not apply to them; it applies to those I’ve met maybe twice and even then only to say hello.
To me, physical contact is a very important thing and should not be used if you are not already on good terms with the person in question. Part of this is from being an introvert, part from being shy, and part from “oh no, why are you touching me, please don’t do that!” I did not know this about myself, but hugs from strangers cause a stress reaction in me. I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Physical contact is one of my love languages. I am keenly aware that it is not everyone’s and thus do not use it lightly. If I don’t feel comfortable around you, or more to the point, if I’m not absolutely sure you are ok with it, I won’t do anything beyond a handshake or a high-five. Boundaries are important to me and I do my best to respect others’. When a stranger hugs me, that boundary is not being respected. And that is super stressful.
Now, I realize that is not the intent. The intent can fall under two categories, as far as I can tell. First, the hugger could be trying to grant some comfort to the bereaved. That is understandable (though I can think of a number of ways to get a better result). I have noticed that no one seems to know what to do for a bereaved family and if a hug is what you can think of, it makes sense.
The second option is slightly more speculative. The hugger might be trying to receive solace from the bereaved. It’s not that I suspect selfishness on the part of the hugger. You have to keep in mind that while the family is arguably the most affected, a death in the community affects everyone. We are by no means the only ones who need comfort. So in the act of a hug, a person might be trying to create a moment of togetherness by which the healing process can start. If this is the case, I doubt it’s a conscious thought.
The memorial is on Friday. I’m probably going to get hugged a lot, mostly by strangers. And I won’t pull away, because I know it’s coming from a place of love. But please, if you tangentially know someone who’s lost someone, don’t hug them. It may not be beneficial.