CHAPTER 8

Wearing Black (Candor)

I have sewed sackcloth over my skin and buried my brow in the dust.

—Job 16:15

Does this look like a cocktail dress?”

I was standing awkwardly in a dressing room in Belk. My friend Christin had graciously agreed to go shopping with me to look for a dress to wear to my sister’s funeral. Christin is a good friend, so she redirected the question back to me. “How do you feel in the dress?” she asked me.

I stood on my tiptoes and cocked my head, peering in the mirror. It was one of those oft-repeated, idiosyncratic movements, something I’d seen my sister do a hundred times growing up whenever we’d put on dress-up clothes or go shopping together. Two sisters, both short in stature, both eager to elongate our bodies when trying on clothes, thoughtfully assessing our appearances. “It looks great!” she’d say as I sucked in my tummy and pulled at the neckline. “It’s totally your color!” I’d say as she pursed her lips and pinched her cheeks. Halloween costumes, first-day-of-school outfits, prom dresses, wedding dresses. This time she was not behind me in the mirror. I folded my arms across my chest, wanting, inch by inch, to cover myself and disappear. I was shopping for a funeral dress without her. Because it was her funeral.

The particular dress in question did, in fact, look like a cocktail dress, so I moved on to the next option. Every dress I’d picked out that day was either gray, beige, or blue. For some reason, I felt uncomfortable with the idea of wearing black. I’d always thought wearing black at a funeral was a bit passé, an outdated formality. I didn’t want to come off as being too dramatic, or like I was wearing a costume. And I didn’t want to bring down the mood.

The mood, Amanda? The mood? At a funeral?

Christin was deeply convicted that I should feel permission to wear whatever I wanted to my sister’s funeral, and she dutifully reminded me of this five to ten times during the course of our shopping excursion. The problem was, I didn’t really know what I wanted to wear. I was still overly preoccupied by how I was coming across to the world. I wanted people’s sympathy but not their condescension. I wanted people to think I was coping well.

In the end, I chose a tasteful navy-colored dress. Not too dark, not too cliché, not too bleak, not too theatrical. I thought that navy was moderate, a good blend of somber but serene.

Navy. It epitomized subdued sorrow. Looking back, it was the wrong color choice. How did I feel in the dress? Maybe I should have asked myself simply, How do I feel? I was not feeling subdued. I was not feeling serene. Everything was dark and bleak.

I should have bought a black dress.

As we were paying at the register, I turned to Christin with a brave smile and said the thing every well-meaning bride says to her bridesmaids who are being forced to wear something ridiculously floofy for her big event: “This is a classic dress. Super versatile. Definitely one that can be worn again and again.” She smiled back and nodded positively. Like I said, she’s a good friend.

The truth is, I haven’t touched the dress since the funeral. It’s still hanging in the closet of my childhood bedroom in my hometown.

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I’m not the only person who has struggled to know what to wear in the days and months after a significant loss. The history of mourning dress in the Western world is tightly woven into the histories of industry, manufacturing, fashion, religion, and socioeconomic mobility.

“Widow’s weeds”—drawn from the Old English word “waed,” which means “garment”—trace their origins back to the early days of the Christian convent. Nuns wore shapeless robes of black, gray, and brown to display their chastity, humility, and rejection of vanity. Likewise, widows wore the same to show their grief and rejection of a joyful, frivolous life.1 Some believe that the custom of wearing black originated from the ancient notion that evil spirits would hover over a corpse. Black was worn by the living to make themselves inconspicuous and therefore unbothered by the menacing spirits.2

Styles, trends, and various iterations of the mourning dress for both men and women—including robes, sashes, veils, hoods, hats, and wimples of white and black—emerged and declined throughout the Middle Ages among the aristocracy of Europe. Sumptuary laws, designed to ensure that the general population was dressed according to their station, issued strict edicts related to mourning attire until the end of the sixteenth century.3 These regulations, along with the high price of black dye, meant that mourning apparel was rarely worn by the working classes.

But as the Industrial Revolution increased the buying power of the middle class and manufacturing allowed for the mass production of black fabrics and crape, mourning dress proliferated throughout every level of society. Wearing proper mourning attire actually became a sign of respectability, especially during the Victorian era, and was a way for the lower classes to assert their socioeconomic mobility.4 Sorrow had suddenly become chic.

Undertakers and the fashion industry alike benefited from the popularization of grief etiquette during that era. The commercialization of mourning clothes corresponded with the widespread publication and consumption of fashion magazines and home journals. These magazines spelled out with arduous specificity the expectations and protocols around mourning dress, though the details would vary from publication to publication.5 Social pitfalls abounded, and navigating this complex maze of proprieties added an entirely new level of stress and expense for the already bereft mourner, eager to honor the dead and also eager to prove their own reputability.

Clothing customs were most consequential for women. By the mid-nineteenth century, men could get away with simply wearing a black suit and tie, along with a black armband or hatband. Women, however, did not get off so easily. Historian Lou Taylor writes, “Women were used, albeit willingly and even eagerly by most, as a show piece, to display their family’s total respectability, sense of conformity, and wealth.”6 There were all kinds of rules about fabrics, trim, collars, and colors.

Different publications recommended various mourning time frames for different family relations, with each stage of mourning requiring different accessories, fabrics, and shades of muted colors. Generally speaking, the recommendation was that children should mourn for parents—and parents should mourn for children—one year. For grandparents and siblings, the mourning period was six months. For aunts and uncles, two months was required; for cousins, four weeks.7

Pressure was perhaps greatest for a Victorian widow. Her period of mourning lasted two and a half years. During the first year of deep mourning, she was required to live in seclusion, leaving her home only to attend church and see close relatives. She was to wear only black, preferably wool fabric with collars and cuffs of folded, untrimmed black crape. The following year, she entered “second mourning” and was allowed to lose some of the crape, add some silk, wear black lace at the dress cuffs and collar, and expand her social circle. In the last half year, known as “half-mourning,” she was permitted to wear clothing that was white, gray, and mauve.8

Mourning dress became a regular part of the average Victorian woman’s wardrobe. With mortality rates as high as they were, it wasn’t unusual for a person to spend a large portion of life in mourning clothes. Ladies had to find creative ways to make their grief glamorous. Memento mori jewelry was highly fashionable; necklaces, rings, and brooches bearing an image of the lost loved one, a skull and crossbones, or designs woven with hair of the deceased were very popular. There were plenty of other accessories to complete the look: bonnets, gloves, fans, and black-bordered handkerchiefs.

The crape veil was particularly important for the ensemble. In the first year of mourning for a widow, the veil was to be long, thick, and made of crape. During the second year of mourning, the veil could be shortened and made of tulle or net.9 Met museum curator Jessica Regan notes, “The mourning veil was often described as a means of shielding the mourner and hiding her grief.” This protective aspect of mourning clothes was not the only function. Regan says, “Mourning dress was also a form of public display, viewed by some women as an outer expression of inner feelings.”10

Unfortunately, the iconic veil did not come without its hazards. Mourning crape, usually made of silk, wool, or a combination of both, was stiff, flaky, easily snagged, foul-smelling, and saturated with toxic chemicals. The fabric would bleed easily in rain and humidity or if met with the tears or sweat of the wearer. The dark stains on the skin of the widow were not easily removed by soap and water. The problem was so prevalent that popular ladies’ magazines would feature articles on how to remove the stains with various concoctions of cream of tartar and oxalic acid. Physicians from that era warned of the health risks associated with the wearing of crape veils.11 But that did little to dissuade mourners from meeting the societal expectations of the day.

Bizarrely, this perilous black veil also came to be somewhat of a sex symbol. The young, mourning widow was often seen as incredibly enticing, free of her marital commitment, vulnerable, yet alluringly untouchable. She was the epitome of elegant mystique beneath her darkened shroud.12

The traditions of grief are only as pure as the people practicing them. No grief ritual is perfect. The bereavement etiquette of the Victorian era is proof of that. Any ritual is susceptible to becoming rote or performative. Plenty of rituals have been manipulated or hijacked by profiteers to plunder the weak and make a show of social or religious superiority. It’s easy to take advantage of an opportunity as recurrent and universal as death.

Perhaps Queen Victoria herself, the century’s most exemplary griever, modeled most powerfully what it means to truly and authentically wear mourning. The “Widow of Windsor,” as she was called, was undeterred by the criticism of her subjects who questioned her sanity and longed for the days of frivolity to return to court. She persisted in her overt and obtrusive bereavement rituals, wearing black until the day she died, never fully emerging from her life of seclusion. By all accounts, this was not a matter of show or a strict adherence to social propriety. She was truly heartbroken. If she was trying to impress anyone, she had failed. Some thought she had gone mad.

The queen seemed to understand something many of us forget today. She recognized the wily, elongated nature of bereavement—that there’s no timeline for grief; that it cannot be contained by mere codes of conduct; that there’s nothing decorous whatsoever about grief.

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The imagery of ocean waves has long been used to describe grief, so I guess I knew to expect surges of sadness to ebb and flow, for the intensity to rise and fall depending on the hour or the day. But grief is not simply sadness. This is something I wish I’d known beforehand. I was under the impression that the emotion of grief was straightforward. When a person died, you would feel very sad to lose them. In my mind, grief was heart-wrenching, of course, but clean-cut and square-shooting.

I never expected the noise of grief, the frenzy of emotions that ensued. I tried in vain to keep it all hidden. The surface was a tightly controlled veneer, thin and taut. Underneath, everything was chaotic, swirling, and turbulent. I was experiencing all kinds of feelings. Confusion (what exactly had just happened?); fear (life will never feel safe again); anger (why did God let this happen?); dread (everyone I’ve ever loved will die); guilt (why did she die and I get to go on living?). Strangest of all, I felt a deep sense of shame and embarrassment. How could I ever have been so foolish? What made me think I would always be happy?

No one ever told me that grief also forces you to bear witness to the pain of the people you love most in the world. You watch your family walk through the worst experience of their lives. It is absolutely gutting to see your parents lose their child, your niece and nephew lose a mother, or your husband lose a baby. It can be hard to differentiate between your emotions and theirs, to know how to shoulder their burdens while staggering under your own. We all lost the same person. But we lost her in different ways, and we all grieved her differently.

Sadness? I didn’t have space in my brain for it. Frankly, simple sadness would have felt like a luxury. Grief wasn’t a wave. It was a hurricane!

I am glad that society no longer asks us to hide our emotions. Somewhere along the way in the last twenty years, culture has given us permission to be honest, at least in part. We can say when we are hurting, ask for help when we are lost. Most of my friends who are my age meet regularly with a therapist and we congratulate ourselves publicly for doing so.

But there are some rules of decorum that endure. Threads of toxic positivity weave their persistent way through our narratives. We can admit that we are struggling, but we’d better resolve the conversation with a clear articulation of our hope. We can state that we need help, but we’d better be careful not to scare people.

As I’ve said before, it’s uncomfortable being the elephant in the room. I went to a baby shower shortly after my sister died and I remember feeling so awkward, like I’d brought some dark cloud of sadness into the room. On my drive to the event, I rehearsed a few talking points—a positive, hopeful framing of the way I was feeling. Then, I crossed my fingers and prayed that no one would approach me with that concerned face, the furrowed brow and pursed lips, and ask how I was really doing.

Somehow, though, I was also simultaneously afraid that no one would ask! I was scared that my pain was invisible, that I was forgotten. These conflicting desires, these inexplicable emotions—this is why the bereaved so often just want to stay home and hide.

Sometimes it’s hard to describe what’s going on inside my heart to my closest friends, much less to strangers and the general public that I interact with every day. The incoherence of bereavement isn’t exactly the kind of thing that can be articulated in a succinct sound bite. There’s no elevator speech for grief.

How do you concisely explain to the grocery attendant, the hairdresser, the barista, the dentist, the doctor, or the auto mechanic that you are simply not yourself because you’ve lost someone? Yes, I left my wallet in the car. No, I haven’t been using conditioner. Yes, I’m crying into my coffee mug. No, I haven’t been flossing regularly. Yes, I think I’m going to die from this common cold. No, I didn’t notice the squealing sound my brakes were making. Because I’m in grief. Because my mind is moving in a million different directions. Because I lost my baby. Because my sister died after being hospitalized for “just the flu.” Because today is her birthday. Because today is the anniversary of my miscarriage. Because this office smells like the antiseptic we used to clean mortar wounds. Because I’ve been debilitated in a million different ways, and I know the growth and redemption and wisdom are coming but they’re not here yet. They’re just not.

Before the Industrial Revolution, “living locally” was the only way to live. The world was primarily agrarian and people’s lives were situated entirely within close-knit towns and villages. Families were thoroughly integrated into small communities made up of neighbors and relatives who would have known if you had been sick, had a baby, or lost a loved one. Understanding was automatic; grace was a given. But today, our lives are lost in crowded urban populations. We don’t personally know the butcher, the baker, or the candlestick maker. Most of the people we pass on the street don’t know us from Adam. We are storyless scenery in one another’s lives.

I remember so many times feeling all alone, standing there in my street clothes, surrounded by strangers who had no idea what I was going through. Maybe if I’d been like a Victorian woman, decked out in the regalia of grief—a black dress or a long dark veil—people would have been moved to forbearance before interacting with me. Maybe I wouldn’t have been cut off in traffic. Maybe people would have let me move to the front of the line at the grocery store. Someone might have paid for my coffee. Someone would have held the door for me; maybe given me the best parking space. This public, communal kindness would not have solved the problem or brought an end to my bereavement. But it would have been a comfort. It would have made me feel safe to be broken.

In spite of grief, the days trudge on. Diapers need changing; groceries need buying. We stumble into work, into church. We host dinner parties and show up to business meetings. Life marches steadily forward and our grief just gets dragged along. No one wants to dolefully remind people of their own inadequacy. “Just a quick refresher, folks: remember that I’m not quite at the top of my game yet, seeing as how my sister is still dead and all.” Meghan O’Rourke writes, “Without ritual, the only way to share a loss was to talk about it… I wanted a way to show my grief rather than tell it.”13

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It’s difficult to know the true function of mourning clothes. Certainly, the Victorian era was fraught with truly unhelpful protocols and formalities. Yet, similar to a wedding, with all its pomp and circumstance and fretting over clothing, the dress codes of mourning were a way of marking that a significant life change had occurred, that things would never be the same again. Perhaps, as many claimed, all the p’s and q’s were so rigidly upheld simply from a desire to truly honor the dead, to make much ado about their lives and their passings.

Maybe for women, particularly widows, it was a way to creatively express their own individuality in the midst of grief. The memento mori jewelry, the various and inventive uses of crape, the fashionable black dresses—perhaps it was all a way of saying, “I’m still here, even though my loved one is not.”

It’s possible that it was all simply a socio-economic exhibition, a way of “keeping up with the Joneses” and proving your fiscal respectability. Maybe mourning dress protocols were an assertion of dignity in the face of death. Or maybe fussing over the accessories of sorrow was a nerve-racking but much-needed distraction.

It was perhaps the Great War that nudged Europe away from its strict, performative dress codes of grief. As casualties mounted, grieving women were too busy with the war effort back home to retreat into seclusion and fuss about the painstaking details of clothing. Many believe it was an issue of morale, that to see the streets flooded with droves of women shrouded in black crape would have been unbearable, both for the soldiers home on leave and for the public in general.

These days, most of the Western world has all but lost the uniform of bereavement. Other cultures around the world have maintained the rituals of mourning dress. My friend Sophea tells me that in her home country of Cambodia, people are still expected to wear white if a loved one dies. White is the color of mourning in many Asian cultures and is a symbol of purity and rebirth. Red is worn by grieving families in parts of Africa, particularly South Africa, where the color is associated with the devastating losses of apartheid. Other physical manifestations of grief exist around the world. In some Hindu cultures it is customary to shave your head when a family member dies. Sophea tells me this is common in Cambodia as well. Up until recently, the women of the Dani tribe of Papua New Guinea would amputate the tips of their fingers when a loved one passed, in part to placate the departed but also as a physical manifestation of their loss.14

Of all the rituals I’ve studied, wearing black is perhaps the one I most wish we could bring back. I like to think that at its core, mourning dress is simply an outward expression of internal sorrow, a way of marking yourself as bereft so that the world will know there is a deep ache inside of you. “I don’t wear black because it becomes me… I wear mourning because it corresponds with my feelings,” wrote teenager Nannie Haskins of Tennessee, who lost her brother in the Civil War. After being told that black was becoming on her she responded, “Becomes me fiddlestick. What do I care whether it becomes me or not?”15

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I am a very private person. I’m a fairly extreme introvert, in fact. The thought of inviting people into any part of my story of grief feels a little overwhelming. There will always be aspects of my experience that belong only to me and to my family. They are details too personal and painful to share. But even opening the door just a little feels pretty scary sometimes.

Regardless of the fear, I believe wholeheartedly in the power of shared story. We need the guidance and wisdom gained by others who have gone before us on the journey of grief. We need solidarity, to feel like we are not alone, and we are not crazy. It was that conviction that led me to explore historic rituals of grief in the first place.

But I’ve tried hard to walk the line between vulnerability and exhibitionism. I’m glad that society no longer requires us to put on a brave face and suffer alone in silence. But in a world that (rightly) affirms the pain of our individual experiences, we can sometimes (wrongly) wear our trauma like a badge of honor, or like a curio that makes us interesting or credible.

Our culture has almost commodified candor, with social media accounts and podcasts dedicated to the managed exhibition of our deepest sorrows and frustrations. Authenticity is a currency and entire industries are built on finding creative ways to make our failures flattering. Leave it to capitalism, I guess, to assign commercial value to something as sacred and mysterious as bereavement.

I realize the irony of my critique when I have, in fact, chosen to write a book about grief.

It’s worth asking why we, like the Victorians, feel this draw toward performance in the midst of loss. Maybe this is it: Death humiliated me. It was mortifying. Sometimes I think I’m trying to win back my dignity, my self-respect. I’m trying to remind myself and the world that I’m still here, because there were times when I almost wasn’t.

The truth is, I want it both ways. I want people to notice my pain, but not in a voyeuristic way. I want people’s support, but not their speculation. I want to be seen without having to showboat. But I’m smart enough to know we live in such a noisy world that sometimes we have to wave our arms to be noticed.

Meghan O’Rourke writes about “the difference between being and seeming, the uncertainty about how the inner translates into the outer, the sense that one is expected to perform grief palatably. (If you don’t seem sad, people worry; but if you are grief-stricken, people flinch away from your pain.)”16 And if I am silent, I worry sometimes that no one sees me at all.

O’Rourke articulates something I feel deep in my bones. Despite my inherent millennial propensity toward performance, I, like everyone else in the world, want to be loved without having to put on an act, to be seen without having to put on a show. As Jan Richardson says, “So many of us carry griefs that we don’t feel like we can speak. But there is something about grief that wants to be seen. There’s something about grief that wants to be known.”17

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The mourning dress of the Old Testament and much of the ancient world was sackcloth. Scholars believe sackcloth was likely dark in color and made of goat’s or camel’s hair. The material could be used for making tents, sails, or carpet, but throughout the ancient Near East, in times of repentance and grief, it was worn as clothing. The fabric was coarse and often placed directly on the skin, which was no doubt uncomfortable.18 It was worn full-length, with a tie at the waist, or as a plain loincloth.19 Many times, sackcloth was accompanied by ashes, which were a mark of death and destruction, a physical representation of human mortality before God.20

I was talking with my friend Ethan about this and he commented that most of us in modern-day America would likely choose to put on our comfort clothes—sweatpants, T-shirt, cozy socks—to work through the ravages of bereavement. Sackcloth, in contrast, was rough against the body, a physical embodiment of the nettling discomfort of grief. I am reminded of what seems to be true about many ancient rituals. They are not inherently placating. They almost seemed designed to rub salt in the wound, to guide you deeper and deeper into the dark hole of grief. What is tangible and visible matches what is going on inside. These embodied genuflections of grief correspond with our internal pain.

We see examples of sackcloth being worn throughout the Bible. Jacob tore his clothes and put on sackcloth when he thought his son Joseph had been killed by a ferocious animal (see Gen. 37:34). When the child he had with Bathsheba was ill, King David fasted and wore sackcloth for seven days, pleading with God to spare his son’s life (see 2 Sam. 12:16). When Mordecai learned of the edict to destroy the Jews, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth, and went into the city wailing (see Est. 4:1). The king of Ninevah, when confronted with his sin before God, commanded that all the people and even the livestock cover themselves in sackcloth as a sign of repentance (see Jon. 3:6–8).

In the Old Testament, the rituals of grief mirror the rituals of repentance. In fact, most passages that reference sackcloth are stories of remorse, the people of God responding with conviction over their sins. In light of this, I’ve asked myself what repentance and grief have in common. If nothing else, both bereavement and contrition bring you to the end of yourself. Sin and sorrow are humiliating. They reveal how weak you are in your own flesh. Both require us to turn in a different direction, to abandon our own plans and move toward God.

Wailing. Ashes. Sackcloth. All are outward expressions of spiritual catastrophe. We are ruined and there is no shame in showing it to the world.

Job, as archetypal in his grief as Queen Victoria, was very familiar with sackcloth and ashes. He makes a poignant statement in Job 16:15. In the verse just prior, Job is railing against his friends for offering him long-winded speeches instead of comfort. He laments that God seems to have attacked him. He then says that he had “sewed sackcloth over [his] skin.” It is evocative imagery, recognizing the visceral and enduring nature of his grief. Nowhere else in Scripture does someone speak so corporeally and permanently of sackcloth. In this moment, Job sees no way out of his sorrow. He will wear the garb of grief forever.

The timeline for the wearing of mourning clothes may vary by era and culture. But those of us who have lost someone we deeply love know that there is no end date or grand finale to grief. How do we persevere through the long, humiliating journey of loss? Do we hide forever beneath our thickening skin, ashamed to show the world the pain we are enduring in our hearts? Do we admit the defeat of it all? Do we show our scars?

Miraculously, God has given us an example of enduring sorrow. Jesus Himself wears the scars of His grief forever. Love led Him to the trauma of death, nails in the hands and feet and a spear through the side. Even when He returned triumphantly in His resurrected body, He felt no need to erase the visible signs of His suffering. The atoning climax of the cross, His passion for the world, and His sorrow for its suffering were nothing to hide or be ashamed of. Once again, God made a display of His vulnerability. Incarnate love. Incarnate grief. His wounds remained and will remain for eternity.

What a remarkable choice on the part of God, to acknowledge that candor and honesty don’t diminish the courage or victory. God was not embarrassed by the humiliation of death: “This is my body, which is for you” (1 Cor. 11:24). It is through brokenness that we are made whole. This is the path of pain and joy. This visibly wounded presence is the way God chose to show up in His glory.

If Jesus wore the scars of His sorrow and sacrifice into the resurrection, perhaps we will too. In the life to come, I’m guessing we’ll all have moved past the desire to perform or pretend. If it’s attention we are seeking, it will be to a different end. I think we’ll be communally reveling in the shared joy of having overcome, of persevering. Maybe then we will all look death in the eye and point proudly to our battle marks. With the same triumph of Christ, we will say, “Hey, Death, look what you did! But guess what? You did not win.”

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