When someone’s beloved dies, grief becomes a powerful influence on behavior, reactions, even thought processes. Yet we don’t have any way to let people know, short of walking around telling everyone. Wouldn’t it be helpful if we had a way to easily create some recognition, respect, and structure around how to mourn a death?
In fact, we do. Or, at least, we did. A formal mourning period can be a powerful way to support families during the grieving process. There was a time when mourning was defined by guidelines for the immediate family, including wearing black, no jewelry, covering mirrors in the house and stepping back from social events.
Creating this space can be helpful not only for the person who is grieving, but for those surrounding the grief-stricken person, both at work and at home. It’s time we brought back the idea of a formal mourning period.
When mourning was hip
Victorian times were the heyday of grief. When Queen Victoria’s husband Albert died in 1861, the Queen entered an extended period of inconsolable mourning. She inspired fashionable trends for how to mourn a death, like wearing “widow’s weeds,” or black clothing, memorial jewelry and artwork created from a deceased person’s hair.
Queen Victoria was famously dour and rarely smiled, but sadness isn’t the only element of grief. The truth is that grief includes moments of happiness, laughter, and anger. This rocky emotional mix can play out in odd ways, so we sometimes judge people who laugh, joke around, or blow up for acting “inappropriately.” We even judge ourselves for these behaviors, wondering what’s wrong with us.
There’s nothing at all wrong! Each person works through how to mourn a death in their own individual way. This is why we need a sign, like Queen Victoria’s black dresses, to tell society that we are in a funky period of life. We need to give ourselves permission to process that time however we need to, and alert others about what’s happening.
How to mourn a death today
Those of us in mourning can send a signal to the world by wearing black, or white, or a black armband. Maybe we add black to society’s “social cause” ribbon collection. A visual marker tells your friends and loved ones what you’re going through, and allows you to set expectations for others. The marker says, “Be patient with me for a while,” or “Expect something a little different,” or “Remove any time stamp of when you think I should be over this.”
While traditional mourning periods of the past lasted a year, remember that one year only represents one Christmas, one birthday, one anniversary. Don’t rush yourself. Pushing ourselves to "get over it" forces an artificial pace to how to mourn a death. It should be a natural, and individual, process, and your mourning period can last as long as it needs to. Queen Victoria’s mourning seclusion lasted for 11 years, and she wore black for the rest of her life – another 40 years.
Granting permission to grieve
With a formal mourning period, co-workers, the babysitter, and even the plumber would recognize that you are in a delicate emotional space. When you laugh at an awkward moment, or lose your temper over something small, it’s okay. You’re in mourning. Those around you are invited to extend some small courtesies and extra patience.
This invitation extends to yourself as well. Formal mourning grants you permission to discover how to mourn a death in your own mental and physical space. To help you process, you can immerse yourself in finding activities that help you recover.
For example, some people journal to connect with their feelings and thoughts. Others find peace in quiet, repetitive activities like gardening or hiking. Many turn to the intensity of physical exercise, like running or cycling. A mourning period allows you to experiment until you find the way that helps you grieve, heal, and reconnect with others.
We’ve made significant advances since Victorian times—for one thing there’s now a vaccine for the typhoid fever that killed Prince Albert. But leaving the formal mourning period behind was a step backward for self-care.