Rhett & Scarlett trip the light fantastic while she is still in mourning. Onlookers say, "Well, I never!"
There used to be a custom in British and American culture of literally wearing your grief. For a woman who had lost a spouse or a child, the rule was to wear full mourning, i.e., all black, perhaps including a black veil, for at least one year and up to four years. Remember Rhett Butler swirling the black-clad Scarlett O’Hara around the dance floor in “Gone With the Wind?” All the correct Southern ladies who witnessed them dancing were scandalized and some even got the vapors, whatever vapors are. That was around 1861, so the custom certainly held then.
In the second stage, half-mourning, you were allowed to move on to lavender and gray. Yippee.
Many cultures observe the custom of wearing mourning colors and clothes but this custom was pretty much gone from America by the mid-20th century, except for the convention of wearing black at a funeral.
In a way I think it’s too bad that the old color codes have lost their meaning. It was a way of letting people know that you were grieving, and they should respect you and your grief.
Nowadays if you wear all black you might be taken for a Goth. Or a priest. Best case scenario, you’re mistaken for a “woman in black,” one of the sisterhood that stands in silent protest against war and social ills.
At the end of my first year of grief, I had a moment of bright clarity in which I thought the color code was a good idea. I briefly wished I’d worn black all year, and could now transition to slightly less mournful purples and grays as a visible sign that things were literally lightening up. Too late to do that, but then the color code implies that there is a steady and predictable progression of grief.
After fifteen months, I know that is not so.
Grief is not linear. Grief is disorderly, if not drunk. You experience all the stages of grief, but you never know what stages you’ll be experiencing on any given day, or if you’ll be experiencing a stage that didn’t make the list of stages. Denial, being as numb as a rock, depression, anger, hurting yourself sobbing, overeating, oversleeping, not being able to sleep, drunkenness, unwise sexual experimentation, teeny tiny wedges of acceptance followed by more denial, depression, anger, and so forth. Really, it would be impossible to list all of the stages of grief. Grief is exactly like the rest of life, you know. Sort of a predictable routine you get into interspersed with unpredictable events and big emotions.
Grief in the second year becomes not less subtle but a little less persistent. You get to have moments of actual happiness, and dare I say it, lightheartedness. I do, anyway. Then you step on a grief-mine, put your foot right in that load of hurt you’re still carrying, and bam, the tears rise and you lose the control you thought you had. If you’re in public people are either lovingly sympathetic or go stick their heads into the frozen vegetable section and pretend they didn’t see you do that embarrassing thing - that is, have a deep feeling.
The emotion feels unexpected because you were going along minding your own business, feeling pretty good about not being a full time basket case anymore. Even though grieving is a normal and common state of abnormal, who wants to feel like a full time basket case?
It feels good not to be sad all the time, and in the second year you may not feel sad all the time. You cannot mistake this change for a cure, though.
I’m talking to myself here. I’ve always had a tendency to think that whatever my emotional state is, it’s permanent. I know better, but as I once heard someone say, that few inches between head and heart is the longest journey in the world.
Driving home the other day I realized I was feeling sad. I thought, well, of course I’m sad. My husband died. I am feeling what anyone would feel in the circumstance, and there is nothing wrong with me for feeling it.
Then I thought, what if every time I felt this sadness over the years, I’d realized that being sad made perfect sense and there was nothing wrong with me? Childhood was hard, and lonely. Early adulthood was also hard, and lonely. Growing older has not been a picnic. Like most of us, I have taken some hard knocks. Of course I am sad and angry at some of the cards I’ve been dealt in life. Who wouldn’t be?
Isn’t that nice and neat? I laugh. Life is not nice and neat. Anything but. Like a wagon with a couple of crooked wheels on a potholed track, we straggle along, and occasionally we have a necessary and appropriate break down.
We get up and keep going, though, because we still have things to do and people to love, and people who love us. Let’s say that again: we still have things to do and people to love, and people who love us.
This is one of the big things grief teaches us, how connected everyone is. So many people are ricocheting around their lives acting as if what they do and how they feel doesn’t matter. So many people don’t understand that they are loved and someone cares, maybe many people care, about how they are doing and what they are feeling.
Carl Jung spoke of the collective unconscious. I don’t know exactly what he meant because Carl was a much brighter and more educated person than I am, and he’d given the matter quite a lot of thought. I read about the concept, read those words, “collective unconscious,” and what it meant to me was that at some primal level we are all connected.
Believing that I feel charged to say to you that if I could convince you reading this of one thing it is that you matter profoundly.
It’s not because you are a hero, although you probably are in some ways, and it’s not because you’re good all the time, because nobody is good all the time. You are important because you are the one and only, unique, irreplaceable you. When you lose someone dear to you, you understand to a degree that you never did before how much that person mattered and how connected they were to everyone who knew them as well as the world of people who did not know them.
It’s my second year of grief. My husband has been gone for almost fifteen months and I’m gradually beginning to move into the world again. I’m sticking around to see what happens next, to make some new friends and rekindle old friendships, to sing a few songs and write a few essays, and, of course, to keep the squirrels off the bird feeder. It’s good when life has purpose and meaning.
Well, to tell the truth, I think I’m giving up on that squirrel thing. They’re jumping eight or nine feet from the apple tree to the bird feeder now and it’s hard not to admire that kind of grace and dedication.
Queen Victoria, who may have made wearing black less popular when she wore mourning after her husband died in 1861 until her own death in 1901. She did love her husband dearly, and we are sorry for her loss, but wow - forty years? That's enough to knock the meaning out of anything.