Respect the Experts: Part Six
Grief: A Lost and Parallel Universe
I’m not one to wax nostalgic or get caught up on how good things “used to be.” I hold a deep and meaningful modern respect for bike helmets after meeting several families whose children were being treated for head injuries in the Purgatory that is a Children’s Hospital. I feel the same about car seats, seat belts, the buddy system, and tetanus shots. Many bad things happened in the not so distant past, and we’ve decreased incidences by changing our laws and attitudes about safety issues. That said, I mourn the absence of mourning in contemporary American culture.
I majored in history for my first degree. On of my many part-time jobs during college included leading tours of Victorian era homes and explaining the artifacts. Amongst said artifacts were some pieces of Victorian mourning hair art. If you find these images interesting you can search on “Victorian mourning hair art” for more examples.
Long ago, when someone died, their hair was harvested and woven together with the hair of the living (collected from brushes) to create pieces of art as an act of grieving. While this may see macabre in a time when you can photograph and videotape anything and everything on your smart phone, appreciation of hair is rooted (forgive the pun) throughout the tactile and visual human experience.
The night before Liam’s first open-heart surgery, when he was six days old, I asked his nurse to cut a lock of his hair . . . just in case. It’s still in a hospital baggie in the box I keep for him, even as his hair lightened, darkened again, thickened and changed on his very living head. I kept a long curl from Moira’s first haircut just because it is the motherly thing to do. One precious curl from her head that now grows straight fine hair.
Hair has always been a vibrant talisman to represent those we love. This strange art of crocheted hair is just one of many antiquated expressions of mourning that we have lost. I can let go of the hair, but the idea of it – that we care enough to not only craft our own memories but that we respect the memories of others – is what I am trying to grasp. This is what I want to see brought back to the future.
Back in the olden days, when women couldn’t vote and children had to work, one really good thing we did lose was a time of mourning for the loss of loved ones. Mourning periods were not entirely predefined or pro-scripted. It could be socially awkward at times, like if a woman went all Miss Havisham and wore her dress until her own passing or if she didn’t wear mourning garb “long enough” after the death of her spouse. But even men could wear a black armband to show they were in mourning. The fact that it was socially acceptable and expected to honor the mourning of others is what we’re missing entirely today. I wonder how and why we lost that and how it extends to our empathy for the living suffering of others.
I think about all of the war veterans and how many issues they have and how little our nation has done to welcome their stories and validate their losses and pains. This glossy social ignorance and shaming of pain is similarly applied to child loss of all kinds including miscarriage. We’re not even talking about the Sandy Hook families anymore, but their children would still fit into the same sized clothes in which they died. How is it that their mourning period was so abruptly ended by our discomfort?
Our world is so desensitized and fast-paced, that when confronted with real, powerful, and meaningful experiences (especially that are not our own) we cringe and recoil or we strike out with cruel words, causing more harm to those already wounded. Are we really that vapid, or are we just weak? What is wrong with us that we cannot allow anything to be wrong with us?
In the present, when a woman loses a child, people will ask her if she’s “over it yet,” or “at least you still have your other children.” Today people will tell you that, “it’s time to grow up,” when you lost a parent in early adulthood and still aren’t sure how to move forward five years later. Today, when you go to a store there is no visual cue for stranger to recognize you are mourning a loss or to be gentle with you. Strangers don’t know so strangers say things that sting. The odd thing is that their words are like lemon juice – they wouldn’t sting if you didn’t have that open wound. This happened to me when I tried to buy a black dress for my father’s funeral. I don’t even remember what the sales clerk said, but I remember it hurt. I remember her face when I told her why I was looking for a black dress. I will always remember the look on her face. These stranger exchanges happen to grieving people all the time.
For those who’ve never experienced the loss of a beloved person to death or the imminent threat of it, the rawness of confronting death is a unique sensation. It’s like being covered in paper cuts, and when people make thoughtless comments, it’s like having lemon juice thrown at you. I think of a mourning dress as a type of protective layer that makes people stop before they speak and avoid throwing so many unintended but painful barbs. The mourning garb is gone for modern people, but the pain is not, and the bereft are left almost defenseless in our world of shallow and fleeting emotions.
It is unfair to those who have not experienced crisis or loss to expect them to just know to respond, especially since our culture seems to have shuttered the traditions and conventions that would prepare us. Just because someone dies doesn’t mean we stop loving them, and when they are gone, our love leaks like blood from a terrible gash left where they were torn from our hearts. Grief is the wound of a loss that leaves a person-shaped hole in our being. At first it is gaping and raw. The wound of grief seals itself around a permanent pain, this is the scar of what was torn away and will never return. What is left us when we mourn is an emotional scar for the love that was rooted to flesh and blood.
I’ve mourned a parent, four grandparents, and my best friend. I learned a lot about grief in my twenties living through so many losses. We all learn these things in life, eventually. Yet, until we’ve lost someone we love, we must stretch to understand what others are experiencing in their losses and respect that every loss is as unique as the two people experiencing it – the person who’s left and the person who’s left behind.
I do know what it is to lose my father and my friend, but I also know that losing one of my children would be even bigger and harsher for me than those substantial losses were. I know this because I’ve skated on the edge of that loss and was given back my balance before we tumbled over the edge. I’ve come as close as I ever wish to be at that level of loss, and I never want to know it fully. I know it’s not up to me, so I don’t take anything for granted. No one wants to feel that pain, but many people live through that sort of loss and it’s cruel to leave them to suffer it alone without recognition.
So for those whose mourning lasts the entire lifetime that their children are no longer living, let us give them the space required for their grief to manifest. Let us give our love and what comfort we can. Let’s take back and then give back mourning in America. Let us give the bereft the gift of time and memorial and take back the dignity we’ve all lost by rushing through lives lived and trampling the delicacy of grieving lives lost. No need to rush ourselves or each other as it will all end far too soon for every one of us.