Poetry Friday: “From Blossoms”

One of my favorite Rob-isms was “It’s all about death and resurrection.” He’d often quote John 12:24 when he said it. Here in New England, we’re on the cusp of summer. The world is in full bloom. All of those seeds that fell to the ground last fall are coming up as flowers in gorgeous array. As the seasons shift, I am reminded that resurrection always comes after death. Whatever you face today, may you find life, the opening buds of resurrection. May you live “as though death were nowhere in the background. From joy to joy to joy.”

From Blossoms

Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward   
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into   
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Hot, Angry Tears

On our 2017 road trip, Rob and I took our children to the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas. Grass on the front lawn had already browned to a crisp that July day, and the Monroe Elementary School building offered a welcome respite from the hot sun outside. Our family had spent the preceding spring studying African American history together. The words of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, the stories of Jacqueline Woodson and Rita Williams-Garcia. We wanted our children to visit this sacred place to make the stories we’d read together come alive. 

Hand in hand, we walked through the quiet linoleum school halls, reading plaques and studying displays. I narrated for the younger ones who couldn’t read well yet; Rob attempted to answer questions as best he could. But as we entered the multimedia exhibit about the history of Black oppression, a single question from one of our children stopped me in my tracks. “Why is the man hanging like that, Mom?” We had studied lynchings, but nothing could have prepared little eyes for seeing that image. My eyes clouded and my face grew hot as I searched for the words to convey so much anger and grief to one so young.

Over the last weeks, I have thought often of that conversation as I have followed the news of Breonna Taylor’s, Ahmaud Arbery’s and George Floyd’s deaths and watched protests form across the country. In the face of such heartbreaking news, I have often felt helpless and without words; the problem is so big. Reflecting on our country’s tragic heritage, my beloved seminary professor and thesis reader, the late Dr. Bruce Fields wrote, “Some crimes are so overwhelming to the senses and reason itself—inflicting pain and sorrow of unimaginable proportions—that no real restitution can be made for them. Repentance for the sin of racism is appropriate, but much damage has been done. Recognition of this reality through the practice of lament is necessary for healing to begin.” 

“Repentance for the sin of racism is appropriate, but much damage has been done. Recognition of this reality through the practice of lament is necessary for healing to begin.” Dr. Bruce Fields

Through the years, Rob and I talked with our children about racial inequality and the image of God imprinted deeply on each of us. As a family we sought to work for justice in ways that honored those whose rights and privileges, though seemingly identical to ours on paper, vanished when they needed them most. We tried to model for our children what gracious living looked like in the kingdom of God. 

And yet, I cannot pretend to understand what it is like to live under the oppression of generations-long racism. I do not wish to cast myself in the role of a white savior or preach a message I do not fully understand. I have confessed my own complacency and complicity. And in recent days, I have realized that there is something more I can do, however small. I can offer the one thing I have learned to do well in the last year. I can grieve.

Of all the emotions that startled me after Rob’s death, grief’s anger surprised me the most. Though Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified anger in her five stages of grief more than fifty years ago, for some reason I didn’t think it was an emotion I’d need to experience. I usually have a pretty high threshold; I don’t get mad easily.

Nevertheless, following Rob’s death, I was surprised to find that I grew angry. About the injustice of my four children growing up without their father. About the pervasiveness of sin’s stain that marked my life with tragedy. I looked out at a world indelibly scarred by pain and suffering, and it made me feel hopeless and helpless. And furious. Anger, I discovered, was a normal, healthy, necessary part of grief.

We often welcome peaceful discourse but see anger as crossing the line. But deep sorrow exhibits a wide variety of emotions, and anger is one of them. As I look at the broken world around me, my grief’s anger mourns fully and deeply for the sin of racism. It acknowledges the dreadful breadth and depth of our collective sin. This holy fury finds its source not in politics but in the same tragic truth that I mourn as I weep for my lost husband. This world is not as it should be. The curse of sin runs painfully deep. This world is so broken. Now is the time for the hot, angry tears of lament.

“Now is the time for the hot, angry tears of lament.”

As I weep with those who weep, I am looking for ways to listen and grieve better. In the words of Efrem Smith, I know I need to “sit at the well of the African American church, the church that was birthed from slavery, from oppression, and sit at the well and ask for a drink.” Even when — especially when — it is a bitter, sorrowful cup to drink. I know that I will love best when I listen attentively, when I am willing to be a companion to those who carry this deep grief of oppression. When I get angry about the things that break the heart of God.

We each must find our own expression of lament. We each must work for justice in our own way. To that end, I share these resources that I’ve added to my reading list. I look forward to listening and learning from these voices. I would love to hear which ones touch your heart and open your eyes to new ways of love and forgiveness. May we possess a grief that listens and an anger that spurs us on toward reconciliation and unity in the Spirit.

“May we possess a grief that listens and an anger that spurs us on toward reconciliation and unity in the Spirit.”

Black Grief Resources

African American Grief
Paul Rosenblatt, Beverly Wallace

Passed on: African American Mourning Stories
Karla FC Holloway

Archetypal Grief: Slavery’s Legacy of Intergenerational Child Loss
Fanny Brewster

The End Is Just the Beginning: Lessons in Grieving for African Americans
Arlene Churn

Lead Me Home: An African-American’s Guide Through The Grief Journey
Carleen Brice

The Ten Year Plan House

All of my life, I’ve been a long-range planner. I’ve loved thinking about broad swaths of time. My childhood journals charted out which boy I’d marry, the names of my children, even floor plan drawings of my dream house. When I met Rob, he and I jumped excitedly into planning together. Time seemed infinite, and we built our dreams as though our lives really would last forever, or at least for many decades to come. We developed five year plans and ten year plans and worked toward them faithfully.

In 2018, we moved across the country and bought a house — the home we called “the ten year plan.” It needed work, but we reasoned we had years to complete the job. We looked at the expansive property and imagined hosting our kids’ youth group bonfires and football games. We stood in the third floor attic room and envisioned a home office for the two of us, working side-by-side on careers that brought us joy as our kids headed off to college. We began big home improvement projects and worked on setting down roots. 

But, just a year later, Rob was dead. And all of the time he and I shared together became not the future but the past. Not hopes and dreams anymore. Only memories. The ten year plan vanished into thin air. I was left alone in a new place with a house that needed work.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

All winter long, I worked on home improvement projects; and this spring, I decided to sell the house. It’s a burden of work, but also a burden of memory. Bittersweet memories of all the ways Rob and I tried to carve out a new life in a new place. Painful echoes of the ways we failed. Reminders that life has ended. I’ve walked the property many times in the last year and wondered if I should stay. There are solid arguments for stability after loss, for avoiding change when grief is fresh and raw. But every time, my heart has told me to move on. This house was our ten year plan, but it isn’t mine. If I have to learn to do life without Rob, I don’t want to do it in this place.

Since Rob died, I’ve become acutely aware of the passage of time. Perhaps because my watch is the only one now to keep us on schedule. Perhaps because every moment of our lives now is measured in B.C./A.D. style — before Rob died and after. Every day is precious currency. Long-range planning has lost its allure. I sometimes wonder if the part of me who loved planning died too when my husband died. My perspective is so different now. Rob’s death has reminded me that I don’t know how much time I’ll have. Whatever time I get, I don’t want to waste it. I can only focus on today. Tomorrow will have to take care of itself.

I suspect that onlookers often assume my disinterest in the future reflects a depressive fatalism. A descent into “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” negativism. Seeing my lack of enthusiasm, they encourage me to think about the future, keep planning, raise my eyes toward the horizon. If you’re grieving, you know how hollow these encouragements can feel. Every place you look, every moment of your future, reveals the absence of the one you love. Especially in early grief, looking to the future can feel nearly impossible to do.

I have come to view my heightened awareness of the present moment is a gift. What others see as a casualty of loss, I see as a blessing. I have found that, in the words of the Preacher, “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too … is from the hand of God.” Maybe someday I will plan for the future again. For now, I’ll just try to enjoy each day as it comes. In grief, that’s a challenging enough task to tackle.

Soon, a realtor’s sign will swing on its hinges on the street beside my house. I don’t know where I’m going when it sells. I have a couple ideas, but no plans. Honestly, I don’t want to make any right now. Last year at this time, I couldn’t have imagined my life would look like this a year later. I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll say the same thing a year from now. Many widows who have gone before me tell me the second year is harder than the first.

When I sign the final papers to sell this house, I’ll get a lump in my throat. Another bittersweet goodbye. Wherever I live next will be a place where Rob will never live with me. I don’t know how to plan for that, so I hope I’ll find what I need when I get wherever I’m going.

Putting The Pieces Back Together

A shattering sound breaks the early morning quiet and sends me shuffling from the sofa into the kitchen. He stands frozen, penitence in his eyes. “I’m sorry, Mom,” he says as he gently gathers the pieces of the broken mug from across the counter. “I accidentally hit it with my elbow when I turned around.” 

“I know that meant a lot to you,” he tells me as we stand side by side picking up shards of ceramic. He knows it was a birthday gift from Rob. I keep my eyes down. I don’t want to let him see them fill with tears. I assure him he is forgiven. Things break. Accidents happen. “I’ll just glue it back together,” I say as I head to the cabinet for the super glue. “It’ll be as good as new.”

As I stand at the counter, reassembling the pieces of my shattered mug I think what a lie that is. Good as new. After brokenness, there’s no such thing as “good as new.” However well I glue it, my mug won’t be the same. Even with the cracks filled, I couldn’t drink out of it anymore. There is no going back to the way it was before. My mug can have a new life holding flowers or pencils on my desk. But the moment it fell, its old life shattered with it.

This isn’t the first sentimental mug that’s broken since Rob died. Each time, I scramble for the glue and painstakingly place the pieces back together. My attention to detail feels almost desperate. Amidst all the ways I can’t control the brokenness in my life, I just want this one repair to work. I pull out the tweezers, prop up broken pieces with toothpicks and silverware. The tips of my fingers grow rough with the coating of super glue that dries on my skin as I try to hold the pieces together, working hard to make it all fit again. I’m so tired of feeling powerless to fix broken things. 

In a neat row in my china cabinet, stand three repaired mugs that tell the story of my life with Rob. The mug from our college days from that little cafe. The mug from the national park. The birthday mug with the rim of gold. All precious to me, but now unusable. Still beautiful, but cracked now, their shapes marred by kitchen calamities. I run my hands around their once smooth bodies and feel the sharp edges of brokenness, the lumps of glue that didn’t dry flat. I look at them, and my heart fills with sadness. Even with deft hands to repair them, they will never look the same. 

Traditional Japanese ceramicists employ a technique called kintsugi to turn repairs like mine into an art form. Filling the cracks with the dust of a precious metal, often gold, these repaired ceramics illustrate a philosophical acceptance of imperfection, the reforming of brokenness into beauty. Many times this analogy is trotted out for grieving people — that our lives though broken can be mended by gold into new things of beauty.  

But when I hear this illustration, I’ve often gotten the impression that for many onlookers, the goal of brokenness repaired with gold is that little white lie I told my son. That if we add some beauty to the rough edges, our lives — like those broken vessels — will be “good as new.” We’ll find a “new normal” that offers the same usefulness and satisfaction as the old. Ask anyone who has lived through grief, and they’ll tell you nothing could be further from the truth.

There is nothing beautiful about the mending process that comes after brokenness. We might wish to romanticize it, coat it with a shimmer of gold dust. But the reality is that mending after brokenness is messy. It is super glue all over your skin. It is deep cuts on your fingers — and your heart — from handling so many shards of a life that has shattered. And if you try to reassemble the life that was, it is never going to look the same. It may enjoy a future, but it will never serve its original purpose. There is no such thing as “good as new.” 

I look at the pieces of what was — our family, our homeschooling life, our marriage, our home, our travel, our dreams. Our life, shattered by Rob’s death. So many well meaning people have stood in the wings for the last almost eleven months, ready to help me pick up the pieces. While I am ever so grateful for that loving intention, it is hard to communicate that whatever my life becomes, it will be drastically different from the life I lived before. The pieces can’t be reassembled; it’s not going to look the same. The life I live without Rob will be one whose shape even I do not know yet.

I avoid using the term “new normal,” but I hear it a lot from people who hope to see that I’ll somehow discover a life that bears some resemblance to the life I lived before. I’ll find a place to plant myself, send my kids to school, and somehow I’ll reassemble this life that broke. And like the jigsaw puzzle that you complete only to discover there’s a missing piece, I’ll reconstruct a full life with a single piece missing — my husband. The holes created by his shattering absence will eventually be filled with gold, the rough edges bonded together with seams of precious metal. If it were possible to compartmentalize life, perhaps this could work. But death shatters everything.

Photo by Natã Romualdo on Pexels.com

A number of years ago, I participated in an art class where we created mosaics. Each student brought a dish to class. We placed them in paper bags, grabbed hammers and smashed our dishes to bits. As I poured the contents of my bag onto the work table, I smiled at the results of the cathartic activity. There were pieces of all sizes. Some that, though broken, still fit like puzzle pieces together. Others so small you could hardly see the original decorative pattern. And ceramic dust — remains that could only be discarded. Grout would hold the usable pieces together,

Artisans will tell you that though they begin a mosaic with intention, the design emerges on its own. Brittle elements — pottery, glass — dictate what they can do. Shapes and sizes can be modified, but much of the art comes from the artist accepting the pieces as they are and creatively finding space and purpose for them. Over time, as the design emerges, the new image cannot be separated from its original pieces. But no one will look at the mosaic and mistaken it for a ceramic dish or a plate of glass. It is something entirely new.

Almost a year out from Rob’s death, I am convinced my life won’t become a kintsugi masterpiece. The new life I shape won’t be a repaired replica of what I lost. I’ve already tried it. It is discouragingly impossible. I cannot make my life “good as new.” Life without Rob will never be normal.

I also am convinced that I can’t live fully again surrounded by mounds of broken pieces. I have to do something. Perhaps, instead, I’ll make a mosaic of this life that has been shattered by loss. I have no idea what the design will look like. I’ve just barely begun. Like an artisan, I’ll trust the process, trust that the design’s intention will emerge. I can’t remake what was, but I hope I can still build something beautiful.  

Poetry Friday: “The Gift to Sing”

In 2018, after our cross-country move, I started a Spotify playlist I called “Life Songs.” I was deeply grieving the loss of my home and community, and I needed music that pointed me to hope. Over the last two years, I’ve added to that playlist until it’s almost eight hours long. A full work day’s worth of reassurance, hope, and peace.

Of all the comforts in grief, I have found music to be one of the most powerful. I love the lyric quality of today’s poem by the great Black poet, James Weldon Johnson. Its words remind me of this beautiful song that encourages my heart. Whatever life brings, I will choose to sing.

The Gift to Sing

James Weldon Johnson

Sometimes the mist overhangs my path,
And blackening clouds about me cling;
But, oh, I have a magic way
To turn the gloom to cheerful day—
      I softly sing.

And if the way grows darker still,
Shadowed by Sorrow’s somber wing,
With glad defiance in my throat,
I pierce the darkness with a note,
       And sing, and sing.

I brood not over the broken past,
Nor dread whatever time may bring;
No nights are dark, no days are long,
While in my heart there swells a song,
       And I can sing.

45 Days to Go: A Lament

It’s June 4, 2020. Just 45 days until it has been a year since you died. I can’t believe I’ve lived so long without you. And yet, that is what my life will always be now — lived without you. The thought tears me wide open. I miss you like it was yesterday. 

I know you’d be proud of me. How I’ve held our family together. How I’ve stepped up to the challenge of doing this on my own. How I’ve found my voice. How I’ve fiercely cared for our kids like you always told me to. I’ve done all the things we talked about. I’ve honored you at every moment the very best I could. I have loved you with every breath.

But I don’t want to have to make you proud. I want you here with me. I just want to be me. The me that was with you, that was a part of you. The me that didn’t care about accomplishments or achievements because being loved by you was the only thing I ever really longed for. The me that found my purpose and joy in loving you and loving our family. I would give back every new opportunity, every accomplishment, to have you here with me again.

I don’t know how to move forward without you. I think I’ve found a path and then it feels empty. Or worse, I find a dead end. Everything is just an end where I still find you dead. Life means something different to me now without you here. It propels me forward, but many days all I really want to do is grieve. Weep and wail like those women who cast themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. I want to feel the weight of the loss of you. Let the loss consume me like loving you consumed my heart. I take comfort that your absence still pierces me through. I carry this sorrow close to my heart. It is a precious testimony to how much I will always love you.

In just seven weeks, I will no longer be a “new widow.” This life I’m still discovering without you will no longer be fresh, uncharted. It will be a painfully familiar road, one where each day I remember the twists and turns of the year before. I never wanted to travel this road once. But now, as I approach the year mark of your death, I realize it is a road I will travel every year for the rest of my life. Like those old fashioned cars at the fair that run with tracks beneath them, my life will forever run this course. A road always marked by the loss of you. Every day, another day further away from you and the life we loved together.

I want to believe that every day further away from you is also another day closer too. I long for you with every ounce of my being. We may be one flesh severed in body, but I carry you within my heart until the glorious day of our promised reunion. When hand in hand we will worship before the throne, rejoicing in all that is finally made new. So shall we ever be with the Lord. That promise is what keeps me going. You are at the end of this race I am still running. I remember your eyes when I crossed that finish line back in Chicago so long ago. Someday, I’ll recognize you by those smiling eyes. You’ll know me by my tears.

Last night, I walked out to the pond on this property that we’d hoped would be the “ten year plan” home. I stood on the bridge, watching the painted turtles slip into the water and the frogs send up bubbles from the muddy bottom. I looked back at our house that has felt like an empty shell ever since I returned to it without you. This house that in a few short weeks I’ll sell. A white flag of surrender. There are some things that are so hard I choose not to do them without you beside me. There are so many hard things. So much to grieve. So much to leave behind. 

I don’t know what I’m doing; I’m learning as I go. But I will keep going. You knew I would. I cling to your words like a life preserver: ““I love her, and I know she will make wise decisions if I am no longer able to be at her side.” I say your words over and over to myself like a mantra. Your love, my source of strength. I’m still smart, strong, independent, fiercely loyal — all those things you always said you loved about me. I still want to live to be 96 and see our children’s children’s children. I’m tenacious like that. I will tell them how much you would have loved them. I’ll do it. Every day. Even through my tears.

And I will believe that God’s love for me is nothing short of infinite. Even in this sorrow, I will choose to trust that good things were planned for me long ago. Days fashioned for me, when as yet there were none of them. My steps are ordered. I wish that you were going to be part of those days. I know that, in some way, you always will be. Still, it makes my heart ache. I did not want to spend my life with you only in memory.

I used to think the veil was thin when we stood shoulder to shoulder, hands outstretched to receive the bread and wine. Tears would stream down my face, and you would reach out and pull me close and hold my hand as the words poured over us like blessing. Clarissa, Christ’s blood shed for you. Rob, Christ’s body broken for you.

Now, when I attend the table alone, I will trust that I can still find you there too. Your face, my beloved, in the great cloud of witnesses. When we recite these words and remember these truths, His name and yours will ever be on my lips. I believe in the communion of saints. The forgiveness of sins. The resurrection of the body. The life of the world to come. For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

The Empty House

Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything. But no, that is not quite accurate. There is one place where her absence comes locally home to me, and it is a place I can’t avoid. I mean my own body. It had such a different importance while it was the body of H.’s lover. Now it’s like an empty house.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

A spouse grieves in myriad ways, but perhaps the most awkward to discuss is the physical dimension of loss. For Christians, I suspect there are many reasons we avoid talking about this. Our culture offers few expressions of healthy sexuality, and many church communities struggle to teach an embodied faith. Christians often possess an inherent (though not always fully recognized) belief that the body is somehow less valuable to God than the soul or spirit. So when the widow says, “I miss his arms around me,” we grow uncomfortable. When the widower laments his loss of bedroom intimacy, we cringe just a little. We think, Good Christians shouldn’t talk about or feel that stuff.

But the reality is that when a woman loses her husband, she loses his body, not just his mind or personality. When a man loses his wife, he loses all of her — from the mundane to the sacred and intimate. Many widowed people eventually find other sources for the wit, intellect, friendship and care of their lost loved one. But there is no replacement for the body of the one they lost. “The death of a beloved is an amputation,” writes C.S. Lewis in strikingly physical metaphor. To acknowledge the true extent of a widow or widower’s pain is to recognize this most intimate place of loss.

Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 on Pexels.com

My marriage to Rob was incarnate; and when he died, I lost his body. Not just his personality or his intellect, his companionship or his wit. But flesh and bone. Heat and pulse and smell and touch. His hands around my waist as I stood at the sink washing dishes. His warm body against mine under the blankets at night. His hair and shoulders and sweat and strength and the million physical intimacies that those who are beloved of one another share in the sacred union of their one-flesh life. In his death, they have left me forever.

Many carry grief for Rob in their hearts. I carry mine in my body too. The body that knew and was known by him, that longs for his own to be beside it. I miss his intangible presence, yes. But it goes deeper than that. With every cell of my being, I miss his body. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh. In death, our one was torn in two. To lose him is to be physically alone in the deepest, most piercing way I know. 

Science tells us that loss affects not just our hearts and souls, but our bodies too. (Read more here and here.) Sometimes, I look in the mirror, and I do not recognize the person who looks back at me. New hollows of sorrow beneath my eyes. New lines etched by grief across my brow. Grief has changed my body. I see hair, face, lips that have not been touched by him in almost a year now. For almost 20 years I have known my body in relation to his. No more now. My body knows Rob is gone in ways my conscious mind does not even comprehend. Grief lives now in my body. Every cell is changed because of his absence. 

My body is here, but Rob’s has returned to dust. Our one flesh has been severed. He is lost to me everywhere — body, soul, mind and spirit. This must be said: our losses are not just emotional, intellectual and spiritual. They are physical too. I know this to be true. My body is now an empty house.

Poetry Friday: “God’s Grief”

With everything happening in the world right now, I’ve been thinking of these words of Genesis 6: The Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and he was deeply grieved. The first time grief is ever mentioned in the Bible, God is the one who is doing it. Only six chapters into the story, when God looks on the world he has made, it breaks his heart. Thorns and thistles, disease and death, hate and injustice have already polluted the world he created. There is so much to mourn.

What does it look like for God to grieve? Today’s poem creatively explores this question.

God’s Grief

Ellen Bass

Great parent
who must have started out
with such high hopes.
What magnitude of suffering,
the immensity of guilt,
the staggering despair.
A mind the size of the sun,
burning with longing,
a heart huge as a gray whale
breaching, streaming
seawater against the pale sky.
Continue reading

Mountain Care

Today the church remembers the servanthood of Bernard of Menthon. While he is best remembered for the dogs who bear his name, Saint Bernard is honored as the patron saint of hikers and mountaineers. Born in the early middle ages to a wealthy Italian family, Bernard left his life of leisure to serve travelers on pilgrimage to Rome. He loved people, and he loved the mountains.

In the early middle ages, European pilgrims regularly hiked south through the Swiss Alps along the Via Francigena, through mountain passes filled year-round with snow. Concerned for their spiritual and physical welfare, Bernard established two hostels in the Alps at 7,000 and 8,000 feet elevation. There he offered food and lodging for the weary and aid to those who found themselves endangered by illness, avalanche or crime (robbery was common) on the trek. It was an arduous journey, and few pilgrims were prepared for the dangers of the mountains. Many had never even seen mountains before.

Photo by Chris Czermak on Pexels.com

The hostels Bernard established flourished, even after pilgrims found a different way over the mountains. Saint Bernard dogs, added in the seventeen century, rescued stranded travelers; and the small churches at the mountain passes were known for their hospitality and kindness to all who visited them. Even after Bernard’s death, the missions thrived, offering prayer and spiritual counsel to travelers. They also cared for those who died in the mountains.

I have never been to the Col du Grand St-Bernard where Bernard established his hostel, but I have received mountain care all the same. The very best. In the last ten months, I have connected with a handful of other widows whose husbands died like mine, in tragic accidents in the mountains they loved. Over and over, I have heard my story echoed in theirs — a story of helpers who offered care in time of need, efforts that went above and beyond, commitment to duty even in tragic circumstances.

On this, Bernard’s day, I am reminded of the courageous, kind and generous team who cared for Rob in the mountains on the day he died. Friends, rangers, helicopter evacuation pilots, medics, chaplains. All who carried out their missions with love in word and action. Like Bernard, they were people who loved hikers and loved the mountains. They cared gently for the one I love most, and I will always be grateful for their service.

On Wearing Black

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.