A Time to Mourn

My father told me when his newly married sister died in a car accident in 1941, he and his brother wore black armbands for thirty days. His brother-in-law barely survived the crash and news of his wife’s death was kept from him until the doctors felt it wouldn’t impact his recovery. So my father and uncle would remove their armbands and switch their black ties for something with color when visiting him in the hospital. At the time, everyone knew what an armband meant.

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I wish I had those armbands to pass around to our family. We are in mourning over the loss of our niece. On Mother’s Day she was a healthy, happy twenty-six year old, planning a bridal shower for her cousin. A week later she was dead from an unidentified virus that attacked her blood, her body and her brain with a vengeance.

Those who know us, know the grief we are holding. They see us as mourners. The rest of the world sees us on the ferry, on the subway, at the coffee shop, in the elevator, at our desks, filling a car with gas, walking in the park, browsing in a bookstore, kneeling in a church. We are the next customer in the supermarket line, at the dry cleaner, a CVS, a deli, a nail salon, a diner. We look like everyone else but we are not. We are in mourning.

Late at night in the hospital while my sister and I maintained a vigil for her daughter, we spoke of the fact that the same nightmare was being played out many times over in other hospitals across the country. Parents were losing children at birth, or to cancer, diseases, accidents or guns. We realized that many other mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins journeyed the same path we were on. They were probably around us more than we knew but we saw them as teachers, students, cashiers, sales people, acquaintances, co-workers, customers, waitresses, lawyers, truck drivers, doctors. We stood next to them at the the bank, at the supermarket, at Starbucks and we never knew what they were dealing with in their hearts.

I believe the laws of heaven and nature reverse when a parent buries a child. As a country, we felt it down to our bones as we watched twenty children buried in Newtown, Connecticut. Now my family is feeling it on a personal and intense level. It alters life as you know it, creating emotional tsunamis and sinkholes that can pull you far below the surface and evaporate everything solid beneath your feet.

That’s why armbands would help. They would announce a state of mourning and manage expectations of those around us. They would tell the world to back off a bit and be patient with us. They would say “I am tending to a raw wound and I need time.” In a world where “everyone mourns differently” and “there are no rules” moving through the grieving process and re-entering the non-grieving world is like walking on a high-wire. It requires small, careful steps and balance is critical. And most times, it feels like you’re working without a net.

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16 Responses to A Time to Mourn

  1. Mary Dombroski Mueller says:

    Dear Claire, Your heartfelt words echo what we have all felt at one time or another. I pray for your family every day. May you walk through your grief at your own pace, and know there will always be a safety net for you. Mary

  2. Patti Flynn Allen says:

    Claire, your words on grieving are spot-on! My prayers continue for you and your family as you all come to terms with the loss of your niece.

  3. Susan Gonzalez says:

    As Catholics we know that our loved ones are in a better, pain free, and peaceful place. We mourn for the impact it has on our wordly lives. At fifteen I lost my mother. My wordly life missed out by not having her by my side when I was picking out my wedding dress, or when I started to feel the first pangs of labor pains when I had my first child. At the time my father made me where black for a month. Ugh! I’m a teenager why do I have to where black? Many years later my father dies from pancreatic cancer January 26, 2009. After a week off from school I had to go back. I wore black for a whole month! This was my way of saying please give me a little space, sorry if I’m not the cheerful teacher you want me to be, and yes I have had a death in my family. This is the hard part of mourning. The world wants to go on as if nothing has happened!

    • Claire Coleman says:

      Susan, There is something to be said for the way we are supposed to rush back into the pace of life when real tragedy strikes. A hundred years ago, even fifty years ago – people knew that families needed time to grieve and slowly come back from that intense sorrow. Human emotions have not changed in that time. Grief has not changed. What has changed is the pace of life and the unrealistic expectations for those in mourning to join it so quickly.

  4. Daniel Politi says:

    Clair -. When we continue to speak of the ones we have lost with friends and family at gatherings, dinners, etc. they will always be with us. They are forever in your heart and you will always remembered the wonderful things you did as a family. Their spirit lives on in us.
    You and your family are in our thoughts and prayers.
    Dan & Stephanie

  5. James Rossi says:

    Mike,

    Truly beautiful article indeed !!! I agree with what Claire is saying whole heartedly, we should have a way to tell the whole world — Step Back– Give us some space== And SHOW A LITTLE LOVE !! Hang in there gang. You are ALL in my Prayers

    Love J.R.

  6. Denice Hogan says:

    Claire, your blog was sent to me by Erin’s mom. She is my best friend since we were 5. I just lost my brother to pancreatic cancer in March. Your story is so true. It seems the rest of the world does not understand things have changed forever. It is a chore to get through the day but it is getting better. It will never be good but I do find times when I think of him and smile at the memory instead of cry. My brother’s family is Jewish and I am catholic. It was a Jewish service at that time with Christian points put in. But when we sat shiva the immediate family wore a black ribbon. We wore it for a week, and really religious Jews wear it for a month or longer. I thought that was such a great idea because it was a tribute to my brother and people knew you were in morning. I cherish this ribbon and have saved it as a memory to him. Sorry to ramble and my prayers are with you and your family. No one knows how hard it is. God bless you all

    • Claire Coleman says:

      Thank you for your comments, Denice. You’re right – no one knows how hard it is until they have gone down the same path. And once you have been there, you are so much more sensitive to those who are on the brink of it. I hope you begin to have some peace and comfort with the loss of your brother.

  7. Joan Glacken Walton says:

    Claire, I like this idea. An outward symbol such as the wearing of armbands would be a gentle reminder to the general public that some people with whom we cross paths in our daily lives “are not having the greatest day, please have some empathy as we mourn our great loss”. It’s a shame this practice has been abandoned.
    You all remain in my prayers,
    Joan

    • Claire Coleman says:

      Everyone has experienced some loss at one time or another. It probably is the one universal experience we share. Yet, the pain behind it and the healing are often ignored and misunderstood. Maybe the armband would be a reminder. Thanks for commenting, Joan.

  8. Claire says:

    I knew your niece. I was her brothers Kindergarten teacher. I attended her wake. It was the third wake I had attended in the last three months. I completely understand what you meant by wearing those bands. Living in a small, tight knit community, most people here knew of my mom and sister-in-laws passing but being out and about, even just in the grocery store, or public places and trying to go about being “normal” was so hard. I’d break into tears at the simplest things. instead of looking like “the crazy lady” at the store, people would realize the reason behind those tears. Thanks for sharing this. I wrote about that feeling a few times in my own blog. http://aprojectforkindness.wordpress.com/2013/05/15/two-months-today/ I am looking forward to following yours.

    • Claire Coleman says:

      Thanks so much for your comments. Deep personal losses make “normal” impossible yet we all strive to get back to it. The thing is – normal changes and it truly takes time and healing to be able to see what the “new normal” (to borrow the phrase) really is. I am sorry for the grief and sorrow you carry. I look forward to reading your blog.

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