Bring back the black armband

Several times as a child I heard the story of how my father had returned from military service to discover that his mother had died and been buried in his absence.

This story fascinated me on so many levels.

At a time when I was just beginning to understand that families were complicated, and that not all children loved their parents equally–or vice versa–the hard facts of this story spoke volumes about my dad’s difficult relationship with his own father.

That my grandfather had waited, in an age of telegrams and trans-Atlantic telephone cables, until my father stepped ashore in England to tell him that his beloved mother had died just a few days before and was now in the ground…well, I understood that there was something very wrong and probably eternally damaging about that scenario.

Beyond that, there was always the mention of the black armband my father wore for months after his mother passed.

I had only ever seen such things in books and movies, and found the notion of betraying one’s grief and loss as oddly embarrassing. Thank goodness, I thought as a youngster, that we didn’t have to do that any more.

But now I am grown up.

And I am starting to lose my family in bits and pieces.

And I wish I had a black armband to tell the world, “I am bereaved and sad and a little emotionally unstable right now. Cut me some slack, will you? You’ll understand soon enough, if you don’t already.”

There have been several deaths in my life this year, beginning with the loss of my dear dad-in-law, Bob, last November 28th. I am just emerging from the deep first-year funk of grief.

I now understand why the Jewish tradition teaches that you shouldn’t make any big changes in the first 12 months after a death in the family. You aren’t in your right mind.

I’m feeling like I’m back to my right mind now.

I am ready again to socialize and can trust myself (more or less; see the Raffi post) not to burst into tears at the sight of Bob’s old camera sitting on the table, or my Aunt Donna’s elegant script adorning a birthday card.

But for the past several months, it would have been nice to have had the shield of a black armband. Something that served as an early warning system for unassuming friends and colleagues. Something that screamed: Caution! 

I say: let’s bring back the black armband, the badge of broken hearts.

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5 thoughts on “Bring back the black armband

  1. Rose Chimera says:

    I agree! A black armband would serve as a warning system. It would help those in the early stages of grief to..protect them from stupid ill-informed utterances that come from people who haven’t ever lost a loved one. A black armband would allow one to continue about their business but also not hide the fact that their business is now and forever different due to the loss. It isn’t obnoxious, it isn’t even large, it is certainly smaller in size then a full black mourning suit.

    Why did that custom end? It didn’t go with the outfit or something nonsensical?

    • I don’t know Rose…I think maybe it had something to do with the “privatizing” of death. When dealing with death and dying moved from families to the professionals–docs, hospitals, funeral homes–in the mid-1900s, I think somehow it became vulgar and/or taboo to acknowledge it at all. How many of us have ever been present in this day and age at a birth, not to mention a death? In other parts of the world, it isn’t like this. I think we need to bring death back into the open here in North America…

      • Rose Chimera says:

        Vulgar…unfortunately I think you might be right. How terrible it is to acknowledge something that we all will experience–whether someone we love or our very own–death. No one gets out alive do they? To pretend it didn’t happen is cruel. Right, in other parts of the world it isn’t taboo to acknowledge death. North America….how soon they’ve forgotten about their ancestors, the struggles, the leaps and bounds, how far we’ve come….to not acknowledge that, by wearing an armband from those that have passed before us might border on criminal. In the sense of not acknowledging that we are not each an island. That we all came from someone. That someone might have had a tremendous impact on us. They deserve to be acknowledged and the one mourning their loss deserves to wear a badge, aka an armband of sadness, loss and grief.

        Death back in the open…good idea. Can we start with stop talking about it in hushed tones? As if whispering about it will ensure death never knocks on our door?

  2. nivadorellsmith says:

    I totally agree. How much simpler life owuld be with the black armband. There is no shame in death or loss. It’s part of life, really. Yet people rarely want to acknowledge or discuss, especially after a certain time. I’m 1.5 years since my husband’s death and would still be wearing the black armband if it was still a custom. Thanks for your post!

  3. ihath says:

    Thank you for sharing your heart felt thoughts

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