Today marks the three year anniversary of my mother-in-law’s death. In the days and months after Barbara was killed in a car crash I wondered if I would be able to go one day, one hour, one minute without thinking about her. As grief does, it has quieted; its hold does not intrude so directly. And yet, the icy tentacles of loss invade our lives still. As our children grow, the fact Barbara isn’t here to see them still causes me great anger and sadness. Paige started high school this year, Colin is in 5th grade, Tristan just started 1st grade. These are days of so many changes and celebrations and I wish we could share them with her.
I remember vividly when she first died that I could not imagine there would be a day when I could tell the story of her death without crying. For weeks after she died I didn’t put makeup on, knowing my tears would undo that small effort to gain some normalcy. Then again, I remember thinking, why did I want to put makeup on anyway? Someone I loved was gone, and nothing else mattered.
Most of us have no ritual to show the world we are grieving; the anguish we feel remains mostly private. In a country where so many cultures and religions coexist, we have no universal public display of mourning status. The Jewish tradition of a torn piece of clothing (or a button with a torn ribbon attached to it) does not have an analogous ritual in many other religions. For those of us who are not religious no outward display of mourning status exists.
My mother (a psychologist specializing in grief and loss) and I have long thought a visible display of mourning status is needed. First, it is a visible way to say “handle with care” to the world. There is no way for a stranger to know the reason you haven’t pulled out of your parking spot is not because you are checking your email on your smartphone but instead is because the woman walking in the parking lot looked like your relative from behind and for a moment you thought it was her and you are sobbing in your seat.
Public displays of mourning status could also serve as a signal to others that you are part of a group. One of the hallmarks of grief is feeling alone, that no one understands. If there were some type of visible “marker” of grieving status, mourners would know that there are so many others who share their pain. Teachers, coaches, and others might be more sensitive to the grief of children if such a symbol were shown.
In the absence of mourning symbols, family members must have good communication with schools and workplaces to keep them updated on the grief process. I believe it’s vital to have repeated conversations about death with children who may not be able to articulate their fears and concerns well. Not only will this show others that death and grief are topics that can (and should) be talked about, it will also ensure that misinformation does not persist.
I revisit difficult subjects with my children often in which I ask them to recount (1) what they think happened (“Tell me what you remember”), (2) how they are feeling (“What emotions did you have then? Have they changed?”), and (3) what questions they have (“Is there anything you would like to know more about?”).
I think it’s important to go back to difficult times and discuss them as children get older and their comprehension changes. I have definitely found this to be the case with my cancer. What my young children understood at the time I was diagnosed is very different from what they are able to understand now. If the circumstances of a relative’s death are complicated, it might be necessary to repeat the story to children and even to adults. These are important narratives.
Today is also the anniversary of my paternal grandmother’s death. These two special women are forever in my heart and on my mind today.
Barbara with Paige, 2001.