A Simple Sign

Our daughter, struggling to process a recent loss, wrote these words in a text: “I’d rather wear black and go back to days of mourning where you were allowed to at least show you were sad.” 

Yes, I thought. Yes.

Later, as I considered her words, I wondered–

When did I first know that people long ago had dressed in mourning? Ten years old, in a dark seat at the brightly lit, single screen, Capitol Theatre in Madisonville, Kentucky. 

Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

Perhaps never has a character so little deserved to wear mourning than Scarlett, with her little tap dancing feet barely concealed behind a counter, and then the ripples of shock that ran through the socially (and racially) restrictive people of Atlanta, when she took Rhett Butler’s hand to twirl across the dance floor, mourning be damned.

In spite of Scarlett’s unfeeling and self-centered lack of grief, the idea of wearing weeds during a time of mourning stuck in my ten year-old brain. Even then, as a child, it seemed to make sense.

Now, some fifty years later, I know it makes sense. The concept of wearing outward signs of inward mourning is a sound one, or so it seems to me.

What if we went back to wearing some simple sign of grief? Would it be so bad to send out a little test balloon to the world in the form of a strip of cloth, or a ribbon, or pin, that says, “Hey. I lost someone who means a lot to me. Maybe they meant the world. Can you make eye contact for more than a millisecond so I know I’m not wandering the planet by myself today?”

Such a small thing: eye contact. Two hands touching for the briefest of seconds. 

We could do that even for people we do not know. It takes a mere moment. It costs us nothing—nothing but the inner courage to face what we all must face—the absolutely certain knowledge that if we love anyone or anything at all in this life, we are guaranteed to grieve.

No matter how much body armor we strap on, or bubble wrap we stuff around our hearts, no matter how much we drink, or eat, or watch TV, or run, or talk, or go to sporting events, or shop, or sort through our mountains of stuff: we will mourn.

Wouldn’t it make sense that we do it together? Even if it’s just a nod from a stranger, a look of comfort from a passerby, a touch from someone in the checkout lane. We may not know the specifics of the other’s loss, but what does it matter?

We are fellow humans, scurrying about on this planet—we love, and we lose. We remember, and we mourn. 

Why don’t we do it together?

Not for an hour, or a day, or a week, or even a month. For as long as it takes. For as deep as it goes.

For poet Natasha Trethewey, who was nineteen when her mother was murdered by her then stepfather, the grief is with her still, powering her writing in ways that are both universally understandable and so painfully specific as to take one’s breath away. 

Here, she reads from the work of yet another poet, Lisel Mueller, a poem that is a reminder for us all that no matter how normal the world may seem, no matter the hustle, the bustle, the trees, the leaves: for the mourner, all is forever changed


And I return to our daughter’s text: “I’d rather wear black and go back to days of mourning where you were allowed to at least show you were sad.” 

Yes, dear heart. 

Yes, to you, to him, to all of us. Yes to wearing weeds.  Yes to the reminder that we all are on the same team. We all will, ultimately, share the same grief.

How much better the days, how much shorter the nights, if we share it together.


6 thoughts on “A Simple Sign

  1. Victoria Bailey says:

    Wow, what a great post, especially during these times when so many have lost loved ones. I just finished reading Natasha Tretheway’s book Memorial Drive about the death of her mother and I’m reading it now for the second time. I lost my mother when I was 23 and my father when I was 25 and I am just starting to deal with it in my writing.


    • Thanks so much, Tori. Trethewey is incredible, and her words (and her work) are powerful. I am sorry for your losses, both so so early, and I sure can understand both the need to write about it, and the need for the intervening years. Good luck in your work, and in your grief. Thank you for being in touch.


  2. Jane Cannon says:

    Powerful Portia! Amen! We all have will grieve at one time or another. You never know what someone is going through. We love your family.


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