One winter afternoon, I brought my children to a nursing home, where my daughter was singing for the residents with a group of girls. When the concert was over, my children and I wandered around the room, looking for elderly residents who could use visitors.
A woman in a wheelchair caught my eye, and we leaned over to talk to her. She couldn’t speak, but she was trying very hard to do so. The aide told me that her name was Minda. I introduced myself and my children to Minda, and she became very agitated.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, wondering if she might be in pain. Then I realized that she was giving everything she had to try to reach for the hand of the child I was holding in my arms.
I helped her take my son’s hand, and a total peace came over her as she held his little hand in hers. It seemed like she was squeezing rather hard, so I looked at my son’s face to make sure he was okay. His eyes twinkled at her with the wisdom of an angel. He seemed to know how much she needed him, and so he sat in my arms and held her hand for long, silent minutes.
When my arms were about to fail me from holding my son in such an awkward position, I finally peeled their hands apart gently—only to see Minda’s agitation quickly rise again. I took her hand in mine and she was again at peace. We talked to her a bit, but mostly we just held hands, and she was content.
Those quiet moments holding hands with Minda were a gift. It would be easy to say that we gave the gift to her, but the truth is that she gave it to us. She welcomed strangers into her world and let herself be vulnerable. She allowed us to console her in her loneliness. She filled our hearts with the understanding that this is what we are meant to do in this world: To reach into one another’s suffering and hold hands, letting each person know they are not alone.
“Human sorrow, left to itself without any assistance, can be fatal,” Katharina Tangari writes in Stories of Padre Pio. “Let us not pretend that those who suffer are supermen of endurance. It would also be a mistake if we, in our own physical and psychological, material and spiritual well-being, were to say to those who were suffering, ‘Suffering is a grace! Rejoice that you have the privilege of being able to suffer.’ Oh, let us never say these or similar things to people who are suffering. As for this talk about the preciousness of suffering, only God can communicate it to the human heart without wounding it! Instead, we must, to the best of our ability, give help and assistance both materially and spiritually, to ease the pains and soften the sufferings of those who are wrapped up or indeed overwhelmed in their own miseries, so that they may find a way out, support, alleviation and, above all, so that a ray of hope may re-enter their hearts and rekindle their faith and trust in God’s providence and mercy.”
I can attest that, during the times in my life when I have suffered most, I received the greatest solace and comfort from the people who simply reached out a hand—or a word, or a phone call, or an email—to let me know they were there, and that I was not alone.
Minda was suffering that day in the nursing home. She was suffering from the lack of human touch.
“People have forgotten what the human touch is, what it is to smile, for somebody to smile at them, somebody to recognize them, somebody to wish them well,” Mother Teresa said. “The terrible thing is to be unwanted.”
When Minda reached out and touched the hand of a child, she immediately became peaceful. But she wasn’t the only one who benefited from that touch. This little child that I held in my arms would normally have been running everywhere. He was unstoppably energetic and always on the go. And yet, when Minda took his hand, he, too, became peaceful. He, too, drew tranquility from a stranger’s hand.
“Be still,” Psalm 46:10 says, and these two strangers holding hands obeyed.
There they were, the young and the old: Neither one able to speak. Both of them dependent upon others to feed, dress, and care for them. One of them not far from birth into this world; the other not far from birth into the next. And across the generations, across the years from his life to hers, stretched the bridge of their hands, linking their pure hearts together in the love that only the childlike can truly know. The love that opens the doors of the kingdom of heaven.
As Mother Teresa said, people have forgotten what the human touch is. Who can help us remember? It is the “least of these” (Mt 25:40)—the suffering, the poor, the childlike. To reach out to take the hand of a person who suffers is not to only give a gift, but also to receive one. It is the gift of peace—“not as the world gives it,” (John 14:27), but as Jesus gives it. It is His hand that we reach for in those who suffer, and it is His hand that we receive in return.