Most of us don't get very far in life without experiencing the death of someone we love. And by mid-life, where I currently reside, people seem to be kicking off at an alarming rate as parents, mentors even, God forbid, people our own age or younger pass away. That is certainly true for me, having lost my beloved grandparents, my father and my only sibling, a younger brother in the past decade. I've gone to more funerals than I wanted to and fewer than I should have, but I still have such uncertainty about grief and mourning.
Being a fifth-generation Californian, I have almost no heritage or tradition that is more than fifty years old. Sure, I am culturally informed enough to roast a turkey at Thanksgiving and that sort of thing, but as to the BIG issues, like the meaning of life and death and the framework in which to place them still has me all bollixed up. My Iowa-born mother saw to our Presbyterian baptisms and we attended Sunday School, but our parents just dropped us off there and picked us up after they'd enjoyed a free hour to read the Sunday paper without kids.
I don't think religion or church occupied any more of my life after about age 7 until I was in my thirties and having my own kids, at which point I saw to their three Presbyterian baptisms and our fourth's Catholic baptism -- a gift to my Brooklyn Italian mother-in-law. Brand loyalty clearly meant little to us; we just stuck to Christianity since it made celebrating holidays and recognizing messiahs easier. We even became Episcopalians for a few years and joined the church that sponsored a school my kids attended.
Being pragmatic about religion has robbed my family and me of the life instructions that ancient religions can offer. Leaving aside the tenets and dogma of religion, I think the Judeo-Christian religions have got the rules for the rhythms of our lives very nicely spelled out. A case could be made that all of religion really started out as a way of trying to figure death out -- whether there is more than life on Earth; how to make sense out of the loss of a beloved.
The death of a beloved person is such a mess, such a theft, such a halt to our lives. I am repeatedly frustrated and disappointed by our banal attempts to streamline it and make it convenient to fit into our busy lives. When my baby brother (he will always be that to me) died after a horrid and painful illness, I was obliterated. Really. I'd spent an entire year trying to save him (and me with him) and we lost.
I couldn't take it. I had nowhere to put my pain, no place to show it but in my shower or in the car after I'd dropped the kids at school. People would ask, "How are you doing?" and I would numbly reply that I was fine; if I'd uttered the truth, that I felt lost and adrift and angry and sick, I was pretty certain our pleasantries would take a dreadful and unexpected turn for the inquirer. So instead of skipping the small talk for a season, I skipped describing my grief. And in doing so, I skipped a lot of usefulness of mourning to heal. I got so fatigued by running into people who didn't know about my loss and having to say, "Well, my brother, died two months ago and so and so is playing varsity football and yes, I will be happy to drive the kids to the movies"
It would have been so much more accurate to have walked around with a dagger protruding from my heart to show the damage done to me. Jews traditionally wear, or wore, a piece of dark cloth pinned to their clothes to wordlessly explain the context in which the mourner walks. My mother-in-law wore black after her husband died, and I recall selfishly wishing she could give up the somber look for our wedding sixth months later, so as not to bring us down. Ah, well, we all know brides are insane.
We need to go back to those outward signs now. Maybe not the wearing of black -- New York City would look like it was grieving perpetually. But something with a couple of words, like a little sign or necklace or pin, saying "I'm Grieving" or "Be Gentle" or "Ask me about my brother/mother/husband/dog" whichever suits the occasion. We might even change the message daily or hourly, rather like an emoticon. On the days that one doesn't feel like participating in life's cabaret, a message such as "Please excuse me, I'm not really here." Then, if we cry at the dry cleaners or beside the copy machine, people will give us our space and not take it personally.
The reality is, losing a beloved is life-altering. We recover, but we are never the same. Everyone, if they we lucky, experiences grief and needs the protection and gentleness of those around us. We may move among you, but our perspective is altered for quite a while. In the meantime, we need to be able to go out in public without always being a full-participant. After a year of watching my brother die, and crying and suffering throughout, I wanted to lift the dark veil off my family and friends after he died. I didn't think anyone needed to be burdened with still another year of anguish from me. Perhaps I didn't feel entitled to be sad any longer. But we do and we must give grief its time and place for so much longer than most of us dare to in the land of constant productivity and achievement. Hey, I didn't invent this -- it's the result of lessons of the millennia and we've just forgotten it.