En español | When neonatologist Jorge Perez saw his mother in person for the first time in close to a year, he felt an immense relief. He cried. She cried. They hugged, bringing Perez back to his childhood.
"It was the first time I was able to rub my hand over her hair and give her a kiss on her forehead,” he says. “I was incredibly touched by it.”
Perez, 62, of Coral Gables, Florida, was able to visit his 92-year-old mother after receiving the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. As people start to get those doses and build up immunity, reunions are beginning to take place. They're emotional, joyous, raw — and often bittersweet, as in Perez's case. His mother, Gladys del Sol, has dementia and can't communicate clearly. Still, she seemed to know him.
"She understands when I'm there, and starts smiling and recognizes my voice and face,” Perez says. “You can tell that she perked up and tried to talk to me, though I wasn't able to understand [her words]."
New York City psychotherapist Josh Jonas says these intense reunions make people realize how much they've missed, especially when it comes to physical touch and the companionship of family and friends.
There have been “many feelings of isolation and a loneliness that's overwhelming,” he says. “You don't know until you feel it in your body how much we need people.”
Catching up on birthdays and holidays
Before their recent reunion, Perez had not seen his mother face-to-face for 10 months. He would drop off food and supplies outside her home, but to avoid infecting her with the coronavirus, he didn't enter. And although he waved to her through a window, “she didn't really see me,” he says.
Her only form of human interaction was with her caregiver, and del Sol often called for her sons by name, even though they couldn't visit.
But as soon as he felt confident his coronavirus immunity had kicked in, Perez went to see his mother. While he plans to visit more frequently when she is also vaccinated, she's currently unable to travel to a vaccination site and no doses are yet available in her area for housebound patients.
On his first visit, he was surprised to see that her cognitive functions had not declined as much as he anticipated during her months of isolation. But the loneliness hurt her in other ways, he says.
"She didn't know there was a pandemic going on,” he says. “Once her family wasn't able to go see her, I'm sure it caused a little more depression and disorientation."
Medical experts warn that getting a vaccine doesn't mean people should open the floodgates on socializing and reconnecting. It remains unclear whether those who are vaccinated can transmit COVID-19. MarkAlain Déry, M.D., medical director of infectious diseases for Access Health Louisiana, says those who are vaccinated should continue to wear masks in public, practice social distancing and handwashing, and try to make sure that before face-to-face meetings take place, all parties have been vaccinated.
Still, reunions are happening across the country, as family and friends catch up on what's been missed.
After receiving the vaccine because of her work in hospitals, Melissa Kennedy, 38, felt like a little girl again when she hugged her also-vaccinated mother, Debbie Jez, 66. Kennedy even yelled “Mommy!” when they embraced.
Though they both live in Chicago, Jez has asthma, so her family followed strict social distancing protocols during the pandemic to protect her. The two, along with Kennedy's sister and nieces, had a “fancy brunch,” where they opened Christmas and birthday presents they hadn't been able to exchange in person.
"Seeing her was the biggest thing I wanted to check off my freedom to-do list,” Kennedy says. “It was the first time I'd hugged and kissed my mom in almost a year. It was great, and I felt like a child again."
Though the family had often texted and connected in virtual ways, the physical reunion felt special.
"I was nice to be back in the mama cocoon,” Kennedy says.
Easing the anxiety of family gatherings
Though people are still cautious about their reunions, just being able to hug and meet face-to-face is bringing up big feelings, says psychotherapist Jonas.
"It's a visceral release when you can touch someone who means something to you,” he says. “You've been working so hard to try to feel okay that it allows for a release, and you let go."
For father and son dentist duo Terry Geller, 68, and Andrew Geller, 37, vaccinations have made a difference in both their professional and personal lives. The Bronxville, New York, dentists no longer have to social distance from each other at work, though they still use masks and PPE with their patients. And they recently enjoyed a restaurant birthday celebration with family for Andrew's mother (and Terry's wife), who turned 68.
It felt significant to celebrate that way with his parents, who are considered higher risk for COVID-19 because of their ages, Andrew says. As a dentist, the first thing Andrew noticed at the birthday dinner was how many more teeth his nephews had — it was the first time he had seen everyone without the masks they'd been wearing for a year.
Terry called the reunion “remarkable.” “The ability to get hugs in. ... That's the first time in a year,” he says. “We underestimate the importance of physical contact, and it was pretty good."
Alexandra Frost is a contributing writer who covers parenting, relationships, health and education. Her work has appeared in other publications including Glamour, Reader's Digest, Shape and Women's Health.