Though this article was prompted by the death of Whitney Houston, almost a decade ago, the first part of the article describes the cultural support people used to get when they were grieving. It’s startling to see how drastically things have changed and it made me wonder if we’ve lost something that might be useful in the support of people who are grieving.
I’m a big advocate of allowing your grief to lead the way, but I wonder if we get rather lost in the process when we don’t have anything to anchor us. Without some structure, we run the risk of either shutting down entirely or drowning under the weight of chaotic emotion that accompanies grief.
So read this article and let me know what you think in the comments. How much structure is enough? How much is too much? Too little?
In England in the late 19th century, death was a highly ritualized affair. Wives were expected to wear special dresses — black, conservative, often accessorized with “weeping veils” — for up to four years following the death of their husbands; if you’d lost a sister or brother, six months of mourning garb was the norm. “Full mourning” (lasting for a year and a day after the death), “second mourning” (the nine months after that), and “half mourning” (the three-six months after that) weren’t suggestions or ironies; they were phases to be followed, and strictly.
To modern sensibilities, the whole idea of mourning suits and widows’ weeds seems extremely quaint and ridiculously confining and, overall, just what it is: Victorian. But the clothes and the strict guidelines for donning and doffing them were part of a larger purpose, which was to create a framework, an agreed-upon system of customs and rituals, that people could turn to amid the chaos of a death. The formal observance of a loss — whether for seven days or four years — carved a space for mourning that fit, by communal fiat, into the life of the community in question. By giving people an agreed-upon period of bereavement, the rituals also gave them, implicitly, an agreed-upon time to move on.
Mourning is murkier now. It is less regulated, less public, less prescribed…