Loss of a Loved One: Observed Nonverbal Behaviours and Emotion
I've been quiet on my blog for a while now because I lost my beautiful mother in May. I've wanted to share with you some observations during my experience of loss– of emotion and nonverbal expression– I'm finally ready to write about it. I'm not sharing my experience of loss as such, but what I want to do here is mention some behaviours that felt noteworthy, illustrating some of the nonverbal cues that I usually write about.
It was sudden and unexpected, so much so, that I didn't get a chance to say goodbye. Living on the other side of the world, I hadn't seen my mum for over two years. I was 'greeted' at the airport by my sister, who reluctantly stepped forth from behind her partner, his body temporarily and unknowingly shielding her from what she had to do. They were waiting right at the very back of the crowd, distancing themselves from the reality of what she was about to disclose. When we don't like something, be it an object, person or topic, we distance ourselves from it. Had she had good news or even no news, she would have no doubt been standing further forward in the crowd. Shaking her head from side to side, with deep sadness etched on her face– I don't recall whether words accompanied the news or not– there was no need for them, to understand the message.
Defeated, we hugged, supporting each other's body from collapsing in on itself. Overwhelmed by deep sadness an emotional outpouring of tears began. This kind of emotional display is rarely seen in a public place, yet the context and gravity of the situation gave way to any cultural display rules– it did not matter– emotional control was far from our minds. This is what I mean when I talk about the importance of context. Every situation is different and there is no, one size fits all approach to the nonverbal cues that we give off ourselves, or decode in others– context plays a large part. In hindsight, I believe anyone watching would have fully understood what was happening and if they didn't- who cares?
Arriving back at our family home, my dad was surrounded by my aunties, uncles and cousins, who had also just flown in– again too late. After greetings of sorrow and anguish, we sat in relative silence. Sitting on his chair facing towards his grief stricken family, my nephew's feet were placed at a 90-degree angle to his body, aligned one in front of another. If I tried to purposely get my feet into that position it would take some effort, yet there was no effort there. They pointed directly towards the door, slightly to his right, behind him. He had no idea what position his feet were in or that they communicated his desire to be somewhere else. Our feet give away our intention, without us even knowing it. Whilst we can control our feet, they are often far from our mind, making them the most honest part of our body. Yet, I doubt that anyone other than my partner and I noticed or understood this. It wasn't long before he made his exit, to join his cousins in another part of the house.
I saw my dad's eyelids flutter whilst talking about the loss of my mum. It signifies inner turmoil to one degree or another– sometimes we see it just at a point of contention, other times as people recount a highly emotional experience. It's an involuntary nonverbal cue which isn't too common to see, although in some people it can be. Understanding nonverbal communication cues, gives us some insight into the emotions of others, but it can't tell us everything.
Whilst my dad's eyelid flutter was within context and understandable, I approached a guest (a stranger to me) at the funeral who's eyelids fluttered continuously through our brief interaction. I don't know why. We sometimes see it a lot in people who stutter, but she didn't stutter. I wondered if she once had, and whether this had become a habit. I also wondered if she was just very uncomfortable with the situation and talking to me– it was possibly a social anxiety, or directly related to my presence. Whilst I'll never know what was going on in her mind at the time, seeing it gave me insight into her discomfort, which allowed me to subtly and politely cut short our interaction, so as to end her discomfort. Had she been the one to initially approach me, I probably would have continued the conversation knowing she had entered into it with intention– again context is important.
I haven't previously, consciously, noticed myself doing a lip purse– when we pout our lips and move them to one side of our face– but since losing my mum I've found myself doing it time and time again, always in the same context. We purse our lips when we're thinking of an alternative. I've found that I only do this when there is nobody else around to see it. I'm not consciously not doing it publicly, but I'm sure that this must my own personal display rules at work. Rules that I've never consciously created, or even thought about. Each time I do this, I'm trying to get a grip on my emotion, changing the internal dialogue so that I can get on with what I need to do- whether it's concealing my emotions before facing the world, or getting on with the task at hand. Eventually, I started to use this nonverbal cue with purpose to help me get a grip on my emotion.
Speaking of emotional control, I'd decided I wanted to speak at the funeral. I hoped that I could control my emotion so that I could physically speak in such an emotional situation. I speak in public for my work and the emotion that I usually have to overcome is fear. I'd never before had to overcome speaking through sadness, I didn't know whether I could or not. I did manage to do it, but I used a number of techniques to allow me to do so. I want to share these techniques with you, but will do so in a post of its own, over the next couple of months.
And finally, some good news...
2017, for me, has been one negative emotional event after another, but finally, I have some good news! I've been working on a few exciting projects this year, one of which is about to come to fruition. Last Thursday I got to jump around the house, defying gravity, whilst squealing with excitement like a giddy child as I heard the good news! Of course, I'd never do that in public (display rules). I'm waiting for the go ahead, to be able to share the news with you at this early stage. But in the meantime, I wanted to let you know I'll be posting more often than usual over the next couple of weeks– in support of the project I'm working on. It's all about emotional expression. I hope you like it. I hope to share the news soon.
What are your personal display rules? Do you freely express nonverbal behaviours at home, whilst concealling some in public? To what extent?