Still Mourning: Be Gentle

When my father-in-law passed away 2 weeks ago, he was the first of our parents to go. I had no idea how his death would affect us.  The answer so far?  Scott is really really sad.

He said his goodbyes, he fulfilled his responsibilities, he did everything he could to work out difficult issues, and Dad was 91 years old—one who’d lived quite a few more years than the expected life-span for his generation.  The death was not a surprise.

Yet Scott’s still really really sad.

Because he lost his father.

I’ve noticed how hard it is to make space for Scott’s sadness.  I’m trying to be gentle and understanding, to ask how he’s doing, but in the hecticness of our lives it’s easy to forget just what a huge change he’s undergone.   Right or wrong, we’ve gone on with life as if something as life-altering as the death of a parent didn’t just happen.  We worked before and after the funeral.  The kids went back to school.  The girls went on their orchestra New York City trip, and Ren still volunteered at the school play the weekend after.

Life has gone on, and there are no markers to let the world know we’ve suffered a major loss.

Back in the “old days” most cultures had ways to mark mourning and let the larger community know “be gentle with me.”  I remember an elementary school friend saying his European father and uncles wore black bands around their arms for a year.  I just read a young adult novel about Koreans during the Japanese occupation where the bereaved wore a traditional white mourning outfit which wasn’t appropriate for public view.  So the mourner not only marked grief with what she wore, but by  sequestering herself and taking time to grieve.  Mama never let me wear white flowers, barrettes or hairbands in my hair as a child because white is the Chinese color of mourning, and she didn’t want me signaling the wrong information–mostly I suspect, because it was bad luck.

These days, we wear black to the funeral and change into more comfortable clothes after the ceremony.

I’m in the life-stage now where my friends’ parents are passing.  Among my women’s accountability group we’ve lost a mother, a father and 2 father-in-laws in the past several years.  And even though we try to support one another well, it can be hard to remember to ask how someone’s grieving when she looks properly dressed, in her right mind, and has just worked a full day plus driven the soccer carpool.

In our multicultural, multi-tasking, multi-responsibility world, I wish there were better ways to set apart those who grieve.  A black band around the arm or white barrette in one’s hair.  Some signal that would let everyone know “be gentle here, and don’t be surprised if I act a little crazy or my eyes fill up with tears for no reason.”

Until then, maybe we can all just try to be a little more gentle to those we meet along the way.

  • Jessica

    You might find this interesting, my boyfriend is Jewish and even though they are reformed Jews, his family still “sits shiva” as they say. It’s a beautiful tradition that offers time for the immediate family to grieve and be taken care of, something we often do not allow ourselves in this busy modern world.

    • Kathy Tuan-Maclean

      Thanks Jessica! I have Jewish friends who practice this tradition and it is an awesome tradition!

  • CG

    Yes. It’s been 5 months since my mom passed, and I just thought tonight about stopping in at a bereavement group just to remind myself that there are other people who may feel oddly detached from such a cheery, fun culture as the US of A. I’m all for fun and laughter, but not at the expense of reality. Yes, I believe she’s in heaven, but I still miss her.

  • Rachel

    I just came across another blog post that reminded me of what you say here: It seems that a desire for some kind of modern mourning clothes is a common theme.