Does Grief Have A Dress Code?

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I was just 20 when my father passed. My sister 16 and my mother, just 48.  It was an accident that shook us all to the core, but there were certain things that I learned and those were even more shocking.

Eyes do lie: As the news was revealed to us at a hospital, I could not cry, all that occurred to me was that I had to call my uncle in Delhi as we didn’t have any relatives there in Indore. For months after, I berated myself for not being able to cry, doubting my love for my first hero. Was I heartless?  I remember thinking. It was only years later that I realized that grief manifests itself in different ways, that grief is deep and personal, that grief does not have a definition and that the amount of tears you shed have no bearing on the grief you feel.

The dress code of grief: As we reached home from the hospital there was a never-ending crowd of people; some who were honestly sad and shocked, some who cried for the sake of it (we’ve all seen those), few policemen who just wanted to interrogate, write a statement and close the file, and a few aunties who were busy being moral cops.

One of them was my mom’s close friend, and the first thing she could suggest to my wailing mother was to change to white and remove her bangles. I was shocked to hear that grief also brought with it a color. Someone who should have been comforting her was instead telling her how to dress, as if it were a dress code that she had to follow to mark the demise of a companionship of 19 years. My mother, who is a strong believer of the, what-will-the-world-say nonsense, still doesn’t wear bright colors even after 7 years. It’s sad, but true – we let the world dictate our actions.

Show-off doesn’t take a vacation: The cremation was performed in Delhi the next day and again a crowd of people flocked our ancestral house. Some wanted to put the biggest wreath or  a fancy shawl on the body but never came in with any support later( they could have silently donated that shawl but then it would have covered the limelight), some wanted to impart all their religious knowledge with their untouchability beliefs and words of advice to benefit the departed soul ( they could have comforted the ones that the soul left behind but again – limelight). And then there were the preachers – who found faults in the arrangements, walked about with self-importance and found nothing wrong in telling my mom that since my father’s horoscope always indicated water-danger, she shouldn’t have allowed him to go swimming! (beat that now).

Family is the ointment and family is the wound: One of the primary people finding faults with the arrangements was my father’s elder brother, who’d come in just for the time of the ceremony and offer a few words of criticism, not of condolence or consolation, just general disapproval of everything around him.

But then, there were those, like my dad’s younger brother and his wife, who were the strongest pillars of support at that trying time, and have assumed the status till date. Family gives us our deepest scars, but also some of our most soothing ointments – it’s a curious mix.

I recently met my mother’s friend at another funeral. She seemed to have taken charge there too – and was doing what’s she clearly best at – advising people on the dress code. However, it is interesting to note that the husband of the deceased wife wasn’t required to make any dramatic acts of symbolism (like breaking bangles or beating his chest) – that’s only for the woman it seems.

This makes me think – does grief have a code? If my mother dresses in white, does that mean she’s feeling more grief? If I didn’t cry at my father’s death, does that mean I felt less? No, it does not.

Grief is personal and all I want to say to people who come to condole, is that sometimes just a silent presence is all a person needs. That and the understanding that grief expresses itself differently in different people. And it definitely does not have a dress code.

By Smriti Tuteja

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Smriti is an avid reader, writer, feminist, a new mom and a lot more. When
not reading or writing, she can be seen cooking or traveling.

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