When all there are is words for experiences that are too big for words

When all there are is words for experiences that are too big for words

I had a different first post in mind when I agreed to come on board to write for anthrodendum. I think we all had many different things in mind back in January and February, and instead, we are thinking about something entirely different.

I am a linguistic anthropologist. I look at language, at what it means to different people, at how to embrace its diversities, at how we make meaning with it. But in looking at all of that, we also pay attention to the gaps in language. The role of silence in communication. The use of the whole body in our linguistic and communicative practices.

In the middle of what was already an intense ache of grief for many people who have lost or fear losing friends and family members to a pernicious virus, Canada was hit by the worst mass shooting our country has ever faced, as at least 22 people were murdered in a spree throughout rural Nova Scotia on Saturday night and early Sunday morning, before the gunman was himself killed by police. The death count may still be rising, as new sites of violence are found and inspected. This is a time when, if the world were normal, we would be gathering. If we were nearby, if we knew people in the area, we would go to their homes, bearing casserole dishes, flowers, whatever. We would attend funerals, and it would be horrible and painful, and we would cry together, and be angry, and scream. We would hug each other, and hold tight those who lost people closest to them. If we weren’t nearby, if we didn’t know anyone there, we would attend candlelight vigils, we would gather in town centres to bring our bodies into a collective and use them to express the only thing that matters in this: we are here, we are together, we are with you.

It is the limitations of linguistic communication that I am thinking about most right now, especially in relation to grief. Where I am, and where many people are, we cannot touch our loved ones right now, other than those that live in the same house. We can’t sit next to them as they struggle against illness, or as they cry for the person that they just lost. We can’t be there, silent, knowing that there is nothing that can be said, but that our presence matters. It’s in these big forms of grief that we find ourselves saying “there are no words”, “I don’t know what to say”, “I can’t express…” over and over and over. But unlike at other times, this is actually all we have. We reach out with “ghost hugs”, puppy gifs, memes, and words. We light a candle in our window, we take a picture of it, we post it online. We talk to crying friends and family through a screen, we cry with them, we say that there is nothing to say. We are trying to “be present”, but it is a flat presence. I don’t know about you, but space to just be together in silence is not possible through screens, where the awkwardness of those pauses seems amplified and echoes.

I’m not an expert, anthropologically speaking, on grieving or funeral rituals, but it seems to me fairly clear that these practices share an embodied nature. We grieve and move through the social experience of grief, in other words, with our bodies, both individual and collective. We find outlets in hugging each other, in crying together, in eating together, in bringing our voices together in song, in touching others, sometimes in laughing. We share strength by manifesting in large numbers in public spaces, in feeling connected to other people in other places doing the same thing. Physical distancing in the context of these big griefs feels profoundly unnatural, almost dehumanizing. I have heard a lot of people, in response to the news in Nova Scotia, share that they are just numb. We should have bigger feelings about this, even if we don’t know those people or that place, but because we don’t have anywhere to do that, because we can’t bring our bodies into the grief, we just can’t. While news agencies and people on social media are talking about what happened there, it’s palpably less than it would have been in the absence of our current socially distant context. People don’t have any words.

Our statements of linguistic limitation – that we don’t have the words to express these incredibly huge human emotions in the face of this violence and loss – have never felt so true to me than at a time when they are all we have left. So I wrote something. This is the best way that I have to say “I am here with the pain”, even though I’m at my desk. Maybe it’s just a slightly longer virtual hug gif, or a cute sticker of a panda with a sad heart. I suspect a lot of us will never want to share one of those again, after all this. In the discussions of “opening up” and what comes first, I have seen a lot of conversations about things like elective/non-urgent medical procedures (which rightfully will come first), economic sectors, and educational institutions, but less about when we will get to grieve our losses in person. Maybe this feels too difficult to talk about – another way in which there are no words – but it seems important to try.

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