We need a sign of our grief, so others know we are not crazy
by Molly Sower Sugarman
Widow's weeds were a good idea. I wish they'd come back into fashion.
Or at least a black arm band for those mourning the loss of someone close; it wouldn't have to be limited to widows. And it wouldn't have to be worn every day. Just those days when you are feeling particularly insane, depressed and lost.
To those who have not experienced the death of a loved one, the armband would be a warning: Beware, this person may not act rationally. It might prepare them for the distracted "huh?" following clear instructions, the befuddled look when trying to do a common task, like filling out a check, or the irrational irritability over a dropped dime or simple human error.
To those who have been bereaved and bereft, the black armband would let them know that here is a person in distress whom they might comfort with a sympathetic look or word of understanding.
It would let everyone know that the person standing in the produce department with tears running down her face, is not insane, merely realizing that she doesn't have to buy figs anymore because the man who ate them is no longer there. Or she's at a loss as to how much to buy for one person.
Widows with whom I've spoken lately recount times when they have sat in tears on the living room floor, overcome by the simple tasks that used to be joint efforts. It's not that the task is beyond the ken of the woman, just that it is no longer a shared, enjoyable task.
Sometimes the task is beyond our ability. For years, I was a single mother, in charge of doing everything on my own, from rewiring lighting fixtures to chopping kindling, from managing my money to getting the car fixed.
But that was in different houses, with different standards of operation. Now I am trying to do as he would have done and I am at a loss; I lived in this house only a few years, years in which our focus was not on maintenance of the house but maintenance of health.
I don't know how to use some of the tools because I never saw them used and the instruction books are hidden in some well-organized drawer. The right tool for each job exists but the garage is a mystery, having been efficiently and happily presided over by my husband.
Others I have talked to never had to fend for themselves. Married all their adult lives, they and their husbands each had their own tasks. As a widow - or widower - the whole bundle drops on the back of the one left behind, who may not have any idea how to chop kindling or maintain the deck or cook dinner.
We are lost in our own homes.
We may also be lost outside of them.
What used to be enjoyable events have become opportunities for old memories to rub salt in a still open wound. Some restaurants, shops, trails, holidays are too dangerous still. Let the black armband warn our friends that old haunts may be haunted.
The person wearing the warning armband could be volatile because she has, for the first time, opened mail addressed to her husband or signed papers taking his name off official documents. Maybe she just did the first load of laundry that needed no sorting because it was all hers. Maybe she is remembering last Christmas, wearing silk and eating Italian pastries together.
A poem by W. S. Merwin, as quoted on a New York subway sign, said it well: "Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color."
We mourners are a hodge-podge of contradictions. Sometimes we don't want to leave the house, sometimes we can't bear to come home. We want to be with people but cannot carry on a conversation. As C.S. Lewis wrote in his book, A Grief Observed, "There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting."
Things that once brought laughter, pleasure, repartee now seem vapid, empty, tasteless. We are numb.
When the black armband goes on, friends and relatives would know that nothing seems as important as the fact that our loved one is gone and we are befuddled by the fact that the sun continues to rise and set.
Or maybe we are just sleep deprived. I've met my daughter in the hall at 3 a.m. as we both roam the house, unable to sleep, walking off our grief.
The best efforts at getting on with life do not obviate the need for the armband. Going back to work, doing volunteer work, joining a bereavement group may fill the time but not the hole in one's heart.
That repair job seems to take longer and may occasionally crack even years later. Ten years after her husband died, one woman I know - happily remarried - still wears her dead husband's shirt once in awhile, just for the comfort it brings her.
Some of us can't clean out the clothes in the closet; it's too much like getting rid of the one we loved, too much like deliberately shattering the mosaic of sights, sounds, smells, habits that made up our life.
Yet others who were also wounded by the loss may move on with their lives and become impatient with our erratic grief. Our fear is that they will leave us behind, slowed as we by a tangle of emotions that trips us up as we stumble along seeking another life-design.
As I talk to people struggling to repair their hearts, I find our common wish is to be allowed to patch the heart-hole in whatever fashion we wish, at whatever speed we can. The stitches may be uneven and weak, the patch askew, not quite centered. It may all come apart when tugged just a bit. We with the black armbands are not yet adept at this ancient art.
Most of us voice a second wish, that friends and relatives will not give up on us -- irritable, morose, unpredictable and illogical as we may be.
[Originally published in the Sacramento Bee and reprinted here with the kind permission of the author. Molly is also the author of the booklet "Choices," here at Phoenix5. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]