We’ve all known people who speak of feeling abandoned by those around them after someone they loved died and was buried. It’s the anguish that comes after the funeral is over, when there are no more medical appointments to make or keep, no more details to be attended to, no more hope that their loved one will recover. The pain that floods in then is often suffered alone. Everyone else has moved on, back to their lives, believing or hoping that their communion through the funeral was enough. But of course, it isn’t. While everyone elses’ life goes back to normal, theirs is suddenly altered, changed forever in ways that are invisible to everyone else.
When my stepfather passed away after a long illness and the blur of the funeral was over, my mother tried to resume her life. After a few days, she went to the bank where the teller asked her with a big, sunny smile, “Why the long face on such a nice day?” The teller was mortified when my mother told her that her husband had just died. The teller stammered out an apology, but all it did was re-open the gates of my mother’s tears, embarrassing her to no end in front of all the other customers. But how could the teller have known? My mother looked the same as she always had – well dressed, stylishly coiffed and although missing her usual bright smile, seemingly fine.
The tradition of wearing black to mourn someone’s passing passed away itself many years ago in our country. Some thought it oppressive and restricting, just a few steps up the evolutionary ladder from the Hindu practice of Sati, where wives would throw themselves on the burning funeral pyres of their dead husbands. We thought freeing ourselves of the customs of wearing black would free us from grief itself, but as we know, grief has nothing to do with clothing. What those customs did provide for us was to give us a way of signaling the world that this person – who stands before us in the vestments of the mourning – this person has been touched by tragedy. It cues the rest of us to be gentle with them, to remember they are fragile, to excuse their behavior while they adjust. Freed of the custom of wearing black, my mother went to the bank wearing the same light blue running suit she often did her errands in, wobbling her way through a world that went on in spite of her pain, a world oblivious to it, unaware that her husband had died and she was now alone for the first time in her life.
So many of us struggle with the awkwardness of trying to find something to say that will acknowledge or comfort someone’s suffering. We are unsure of what to say, how to say it, or even of how to deal with our own feelings. We try to find comfort in knowing that a death from natural causes was a life that ran its course and followed the natural order of things. After all, as the old joke says, even a calendar’s days are numbered. “They’re with God now,” we hear, or “They lived a good, long life.” Often, when confronting the heartbreak of those left behind, we stand paralyzed. There is no natural order to heartbreak and that sad reality makes many of us hold back, inept and uneasy in the face of their pain.
Even if we brought back the custom of wearing black, it would never work. Few of us would want to see a return of the scratchy wool dresses and black lace that marked the past, or the black bunting that would be put up on the outside of homes where someone had died. Still, I wish we had some way of knowing that the person we are dealing with is in the midst of bereavement, some way of being able to know that they will need extra kindness and care.