In the not-so-distant past, when an individual within a family died, there was a prescribed period of mourning, during which expectations of the bereaved family were lightened. In fact, if the mourners did engage in excessive activities, including entertaining guests or attending social events, it was perceived as being disrespectful to the deceased. There were also many conventions that symbolically told others that an individual or a family was in mourning, for example, the black wreath on the door, or, during WWII, the gold star in the window. Clothing also symbolized grief, most notably the Victorian era’s “widow’s weeds,” the all-black wardrobe traditionally worn by a widow for a full year after the death of her husband.
Many cultures continue with these conventions of grieving, and in some ways, I think that it would make life easier for those in grief if we hung on to a few of them, because it would convey to others that “No, we are not the same; life is profoundly different now.” And in our hurry-up “just get over it” times, a prescribed period of mourning might be very welcome to some people, who feel rushed through their grieving by others. “It’s been six months already, time to move on,” someone told me after Steve died. As if in just six months I could conceivably experience all the feelings and emotions of loss, let alone feel like I could just put it all behind me and paste a big smile on my face as I moved forward.
During the dark days that followed Steve’s death, I felt physically unable to perceive color. Because my work wardrobe had always been centered around black as a key motif, I already had plenty of black clothes that I was just naturally drawn to, and it was not until a few months after Steve died, when a friend asked me if I ever intended to wear colors other than black again, that I realized that it had unconsciously become my exclusive wardrobe hue.
As I did my grief work — deeply feeling all the emotions and pain that accompanied the death of my husband — I gradually began to heal. And as I began to heal, colors slowly made their way back into my wardrobe.
About a year after Steve died, I remember looking around my living room and recognizing how tired everything looked. I felt energized and ready for a change, and it all started when I found an antique Moroccan brass tray table that I’d been seeking for years. We brought it into the living room and it looked so very wrong… nothing worked with it, most especially the furniture layout.
So I decided to get rid of our extra-long sofa, and replace it with four upholstered chairs that could be situated around the new coffee table. Once the chairs arrived, I realized how tired the drapes and carpeting looked. So we removed the wall-to-wall carpet, only to find gorgeous hardwood floors underneath. A quick resurface (done by a professional floor guy) made them sparkle, and I decided we needed to paint the walls at the same time, selecting a warm maple tone that brought all the elements together.
The old white front door looked downright bland next to all the new hues, so it got a vibrant red coat of paint. And I realized our fireplace, which was faced with “used bricks” just didn’t work, so that received several coats of “moonlight white” paint, which totally transformed a former eyesore, making it almost invisible. A richly woven Oriental rug tied all the pieces together, and new light fixtures and standing lamps added a rich glow.
Gone were the placid, peaceful light-green tones of our previous living room, replaced by an exotic, deeply-hued palate that even still makes me happy every time I enter the room.
What I’ve discovered: Colors have a profound effect on us humans, even if subconsciously. Our choice of colors can often indicate how we’re feeling on a given day, and if we are aware and awake to it, we can even alter our mood by selecting colors that bring on different feelings. In the time since Steve died, I’ve added a lot of new colors to my wardrobe, and take great delight when friends say “I almost didn’t recognize you — I’m not used to seeing you wearing that color!” As I did when redecorating my house, I’ve experimented with colors that I typically avoided in the past — and I’ve been pleasantly surprised with some of the new additions to my personal color palate. I’ve also come to realize that there is a certain shade of green that I should never, ever wear!
What colors make you happy? Sad? Defeated? Radiant? Please share your experience with colors and grief with us — we’d love to hear how colors have been part of your grief journey.
Beverly Chantalle McManus lives in Northern California with her two daughters, who have each now graduated from college. She is Vice President and Treasurer of the Board of Directors for the Open to Hope Foundation, a bereavement facilitator and core team member of the Stepping Stones on your Grief Journey Workshops, and a frequent speaker and writer on the topic of loss and grief. In addition to grief support, she is also a marketing executive for professional services firms.