My friend Laura asked to write a piece about black clothing to read at the conference I attended last week, Mom 2.0. Originally the plan was for me to read it on Friday Night at a “coffee-house” party, but since I had to leave early I read it before the general session of four hundred people. Laura informed me of this about two hours before I was supposed to read. Thank you Laura for the opportunity – and the minor heart attack.
I used to love wearing black clothing. It always went with whatever hair color I was sporting. It made me look thinner on my bloated days, and I could dress it up or down depending on the occasion. I was sexy, I was fun, I was emo, black was whatever I wanted to be. I wore black almost every day.
And then my daughter died.
Black is the color associated with grief and mourning. When my grandmother lost her son to Leukemia in the 1950s, she and my great-grandmother wore black for an entire year. I remember her telling me that she would get stared at when she went out in public. The looks she got at the grocery store, or at church, or even walking her children to school, were looks of sadness, curiosity, and pity. As a child, I remember being horrified. As an adult suddenly in the same position, I was terrified.
I did NOT want to be the young grieving mom. I didn’t want to enshroud myself in black material, broadcasting my sadness and loss. It seemed so terribly invasive, and even though the custom of mourning clothes has fallen away, I knew that wearing black was something I wanted to avoid at all costs.
I asked everyone to wear purple to my daughter’s funeral. I packed away my black clothing. I desperately wanted to appear normal, wrapping myself in bright colors and textures. On the inside, I was black and broken, but on the outside I did everything I could to look like a normal 29-year-old woman. I couldn’t handle the thought of a stranger looking at me with pity.
I think we all know that no stranger was ever going to look at me and know I was “in mourning.” (And really, that term is so inaccurate, because mourning isn’t a period of life that begins and ends – it clings to you, wrapping around your soul, for the rest of your life.) But at that point, I wasn’t rational, and banishing black gave me a small sense of control during the most uncontrollable time in my life.
My grandmother predeceased my daughter by six years, but I had never missed her as much as I did in the immediate aftermath of Madeline’s death. My Aunt Kathy, my mother’s oldest sibling, was the only one of my Grandmother’s children old enough to remember their “mourning period.” I would have long talks with her about what she remembered from that time. I was desperate to know how my grandmother had survived losing a child, and my aunt would answer every question I had to the best of her ability.
At one point, I brought up the mourning clothes, and how I’d banished black from my wardrobe. She remembered the time, but not with the same painful clarity my grandmother had once described. I commented that I couldn’t remember EVER seeing my grandma wear black. My aunt agreed, took a long pause, and then said:
“I hope you wear black again, Heather. You really wear the shit out of black.”
A few months later, when my aunt passed away suddenly, I wore a black dress to her memorial service. I wore the shit out of it.
I am now three years past the intense, immediate shock of my daughter’s death. Wearing black is no longer something I avoid – in fact, I’ve started adding black pieces to my wardrobe again. I am back to defining what I want my black clothes to mean to ME, and not what I think black clothes may mean to those around me. I can be confident, or sassy, or even sad when I wear black. I define the clothes, the clothes do not define me.
Tonight at 9pm ET/6pm PT I will be hosting a Twitter party for the Thank You, Mom program. Be sure to follow me @MamaSpohr so you can participate!