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  • Judy Carole

The Lack of External Symbols of Grief

The journey of grief is a solitary one.

Although we have no choice but to walk it alone, this is a time when we need access to as much support from our community as possible, yet, paradoxically, it is a time when our emotional energy is at its lowest, and we have little energy to reach out.

In the past, someone in mourning was easily recognisable, which enabled others to treat them with sensitivity. However, now there is no obvious way for grief to be announced; an unhappy mourner is more likely to be misunderstood, deemed simply to have got out of the bed the wrong side, than to be grieving. External symbols of grief allow the mourner to make known they have suffered a loss, without having to make an embarrassing announcement that most would shy away from.

Sackcloth and ashes were the first recorded outward sign of one’s inward condition, and are mentioned several times in the Bible. Sackcloth is a coarse, black cloth made from goat’s hair, which was worn with a dusting of ashes as a sign of mourning.

The Ancient Romans were the first to wear intentionally dark clothing while in mourning - they wore a dark toga, known as a toga pulla, to mourn the loss of a loved one. The tradition of wearing dark or black clothes for a time after a death was common in western society during the past two centuries, however wearing black became more of an elaborate ritual in the middle of the 19th century, when Queen Victoria mourned the death of her husband, Prince Albert, for 40 years. Black is still the colour of mourning in many European cultures.

White clothing is worn by mourners in Eastern Asia as a symbol of purity and rebirth. With Buddhism as the central religion in much of Eastern Asia, this faith believes in reincarnation after death and a circle of life, so countries such as Cambodia, Japan and India will wear white to encourage rebirth after death. White is also the colour of mourning in Ethiopia.

Generally, in western countries, the wearing of black – even sometimes to the funeral itself – is now considered an old fashioned custom, and has largely fallen into disuse. Therefore, those in mourning no longer have an external sign of their internal emotional state, though it is still upheld on some public occasions. For example, in the west, when the wearer of a black armband wishes to identify with the commemoration of a comrade or team member who has died.

The unfortunate consequence of this is that we no longer have a unified symbol to express our grieving. Furthermore, our society expects that our grieving period lasts only until the funeral. Once the funeral is over, we are expected to go back to work and get on with our lives. We are expected to contain our emotions, at least publicly, so as to appear in control and managing just fine. It seems that if you have a problem and no one perceives it – it doesn't exist.

Along with the absence of an external expression, this internal sense of loss is compounded by a lack of societal recognition that grief lasts longer than it takes for the flowers to fade, and the Facebook sympathisers to move on to the next item of interest.

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