Before my Mom died, I had the vague sense that wearing black as a mourning custom was old-fashioned, restrictive, and generally pointless. But when I woke up the day after my Mom’s spirit left her body, I just wanted to wear black. It wasn’t a very calculated or considered decision. Then the thought crossed my mind, “I’ll wear black for a year.” And again, it felt right. I wasn’t sure why, exactly, since that tradition has all but disappeared by this century, but at the moment I needed something to hold onto.
My Dad wrote in an email last week that we don’t know how to grieve. He was speaking particularly about our family, having never gone through something like this, but also about our culture. We are so afraid of death. We don’t like run-down buildings, or rotting trees; we shut up our elders in homes and turn away from those dying in hospitals. We see any hint of death as failure, as our inability to materialize the illusion of eternal youth. And so we silently hope that those around us who grieve will do so privately and briefly – and get back to the business of living! Above all, we hope not to be reminded of our own mortality.
By allowing me to watch her dying, and to be with her at her death, my mother showed me a different way. She taught me that death, as premature and tragic as it can be, is a natural part of life, and need not be quite so shunned and feared. Even so, every day, I live with a chasm ripped wide in my heart. I find it impossible to go on. I try to fill the gaping hole where my Mother used to be with poetry, music, tears, prayers, a new garden. I wonder why. I revile the universe.
And I wear black. It is a way to honor my Mother. It is a formal way for me to remember. The loss is too great: I must do something. Wearing black is a way for me to suggest to the outside world the despair that is now woven into every cell of my being. Wearing black shows that I am not the same. And I won’t pretend to be. In a culture that has so few traditions left, wearing black is my way of crying out to the world: honor death! Deal with death! Support those who grieve! Ask us how we are – and show that you want a genuine answer. Say, “I’m so sorry about your loss,” in person, even if you’ve already emailed, Facebooked and texted. Sit and be present in the uncomfortable, awkward moments. Allow a tightness in the chest, or even tears. Experience the fear, and beauty, that comes when contemplating our short time on this Earth.