by Amy Phillips Witzke
My mother died recently. In the days that followed, I went to the post office, grocery store and other places. No one knew my mother had just died. I was greeted with cheery expressions like Have a nice day! and Come back soon! I could only nod. I couldn’t bring myself to interact with the world yet. Especially a world in which my mother did not exist.
Years ago when a loved one died, those left behind wore dark somber clothes as an outward and visible sign of their grief. Anyone they interacted with knew instantly that here was a person who was grieving. Here was a person who needed/wanted to be handled with extra kindness. Here was a person that the community could and should support.
Twelve years ago, when my husband died, I felt very differently. I was only 45. I scoffed at several people who asked if I would be wearing black after my husband’s death. I never wore black except at his memorial service and even then wore a cardinal red scarf, in honor of our Stanford alma mater. Maybe I feared that wearing black would label me as a helpless widow. Maybe my identity was so tied to being his wife I wasn’t ready to be his widow. Maybe I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. I felt that wearing black, while drawing attention, would paradoxically also create a barrier to interaction. No one ever knows what to say to those in mourning. People would, I feared, keep their distance at a time I needed them most.
But this time, grieving the loss of my mother, I can better appreciate the reasons for dressing in black. Maybe it’s because I’m older and went through an earlier painful loss. Maybe my identity now is not tied up in the loss of my mother as it was with the loss of my husband. I can also now better understand the longing for understanding and support as I stand in front a table of my mother’s favorite desserts (which is all of them) at the grocery store and need to grip tightly onto the cart for fear of dissolving into a heap onto the floor.
Queen Victoria wore black from the moment her beloved husband, Albert, died until the day she herself died. Forty years! I am not suggesting that I or anyone else should wear black for 40 years. I’m suggesting that maybe a way of alerting the public that, yes, I am grieving a great loss and my thoughts and actions might not be what anyone in ordinary circumstances expects might not be such a bad thing.
Maybe wearing black would be a way of silently asking Please be patient with me if I don’t respond as quickly as you expect. Please tell me a story about my loved one. Please offer a kind word if I tear up. Please ask me if I need a hug. Maybe wearing black could become an invitation for interaction and understanding rather than a barrier or a label.
Amy Phillips Witzke attends St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Mountain View, California. She was not wearing black when she wrote this.