As soon as the weather got above 50 degrees here in New England, my kids started wearing shorts. My youngest transitioned to sleeveless dresses. My boys raided the large Tupperware bins in the closet, pulling out tie-dye t-shirts and basketball shorts, convincing me they really weren’t cold at all when they played outside with bare arms and legs. “You make me cold just looking at you!” I said to them, echoing the words my mother told me as a girl. For kids desperate for summer, any weather warmer than snowing is good enough.
In the past two weeks we’ve hit a stretch of what even I consider warm weather, and I decided it was time for me to follow suit. I walked into my closet, grabbed the two bins labeled “Clarissa Summer” and brought them over to my bed. Every year, I love opening these bins. The last scents of summer, my favorite season, are trapped inside. The promise of warm weather and good times to come.
As I opened the bins and began sorting through my clothes, I was struck at the time capsule I’d inadvertently opened. Among my favorite novelty t-shirts and cut-off jean shorts were the clothes I’d ordered shortly after Rob died. A black sleeveless shirt for those late July days. Two black t-shirts. A black dress I never wore. Black shorts that became a wardrobe staple. Everything filled with memories. Everything black.
When Rob was writing The Art of Dying ten years ago, he researched American religious and secular mourning customs. What he found concerned him. While generations before had engaged in multiple public mourning rituals — wakes, funerary clothes, exterior home adornments — contemporary Americans had few, if any, public ways to signify their loss. Instead, the bereaved relied on personal acknowledgements like saving locks of hair, sitting for memorial tattoos, or keeping an urn of ashes. Things no one else would see unless they entered the intimacy of a person’s physical space or home.
The result of this, Rob found, was that our culture was habitually insensitive to the bereaved. The clerk at the post office handled the new widow gruffly when she became flustered about a mixup with the mail. The school teacher disciplined the distracted student who could not focus as he inwardly mourned his sibling’s death. In their defense, no one on the outside knew gentler care was needed. No outward signifiers had alerted them to the deeply painful change in the person’s life. Mourning, now privatised, shifted the onus onto the bereaved. If they wanted anyone to know their condition, they must verbally state it — an effort those who grieve know is dreadfully hard to do.
As Rob worked among the grieving and studied customs that had faded from use, he determined that the church must lead the way in creating new rituals that would allow the bereaved to mourn corporately. We needed a community way to grieve. When he and I talked about our own last days, we agreed. Whatever the circumstances surrounding our deaths, the surviving spouse would look for ways to signify his or her loss publicly, to embody grief. When Rob died, I chose to wear black.
For the first three months after Rob died, anytime I went out in public I chose to wear black and avoid using makeup. I don’t know who noticed; they never mentioned it. But as I look back at pictures taken of me during that period I see it clearly. Grief is written all over my face. The black attire and lack of makeup don’t flatter. Anybody who saw me would have seen something wasn’t right. There was a time when the store cashier or the bank teller would have known exactly what had happened just by looking at me. If I showed you “before loss” and “after loss” pictures, you’d see the difference too.
Each morning, for three months I woke to put on those black clothes. When my son mistakenly used bleach in a load of laundry instead of detergent, I wore the mottled black tank top anyways. Short of writing “I feel dead inside” across my forehead, how else could I communicate my loss? Wearing black allowed me to make physical the sorrow I felt so keenly inside. My whole life was destroyed, and I needed ways to manifest that. Wearing anything else felt like putting lipstick on a pig. Or more poignantly, a corpse.
I distinctly remember the day last fall when I put away the summer clothes for autumn. The days were becoming cooler, and short sleeves — even for my boys — weren’t warm enough. Three months of black had narrowed my wardrobe, and I cried as I put away the t-shirts I’d stopped wearing after Rob died. Over the last months they’d been pushed to the back of the bureau drawers. I hardly remembered I’d owned them. It was as though they were from a different life, one that was now painfully gone.
It was then that I decided to put away the black too. I packed up the t-shirts and the tank tops, even the black dress I’d bought but never worn. The only black that remained hanging in the closet was the dress I’d worn to Rob’s memorial service — a dress he’d dubbed as “hot” when I bought it for a job interview back in the spring. I could remember his arms around me when I wore it, and I loved to revisit that memory when I saw it hanging there. I pushed the summer clothes bins into the back corner of the closet and pulled out the “Clarissa Fall/Winter” bin. When I opened it, I was surprised. So many colors lay inside. I discovered I was actually looking forward to wearing something other than black.
“What a lack it is not to have some communal mark of mourning to give our grief some space in the world outside ourselves,” laments writer Andrea DenHoed. Having lived through almost a year of grief, I have to agree. Sorrow so often defies words. If we are to carry one another gently, we need to find ways to signify pain — ways that don’t require speaking. We need to develop rituals and markers in our culture and in the church that allow the bereaved to express their grief and signify their loss. A code of grief that everyone in our community can understand.
As I unpacked my summer clothes this week, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure what to do with the black ones. Some of them I really like; others just remind me of death. I think that’s how it is supposed to be. Grief is not a process to be completed but an emotion or experience we integrate into our new lives post-loss. We step into the light and retreat back into darkness. We begin to wear colors, then we revert to wearing black. And all of this shifting is necessary and healthy — the slow, painful, healing integration of grief into the new lives loss has wrought.
I decided to keep some of the shirts and send the rest to Goodwill. Those black clothes will always remind me of that painful summer. I can’t buy black clothes now without thinking of death. I have decided, like all of the ways Rob’s death has marked my life, that even this is okay. Grief, ever the mark of love, wears many colors. In that season, only black. In this season, a rainbow of hues even as black is ever present.