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Thru the Ages: How We Show Grief

I remember the shock of the World Trade Center coming down, and I remember the unifying comfort of shared, national grief.

We huddled in front of television news broadcasts together. We lighted candles together. We stuck magnetic America flags and troop support ribbons on our cars. A sea of grief expression.

grayscale photo of new york city cityscape

Photo by Jonathan Lassen on

This week, 18 years later, social media is abuzz with the collectively remembered anniversary of the sudden, dramatic, deliberate slaughter that invaded our shores. Not like an army but like a bug, creeping into our safe place and then striking us with horror.

We don’t grieve like this a lot. Publicly. Visually. But in the 1800s, grief was out in the open. This month, in the Victorian Village Historic District of Memphis, the Mallory-Neely House is decked out in mourning clothes and educating people about the way we used to grieve.

“You were born in your home, you died in your home. You didn’t go to the hospital,” said Jennifer Cooper, executive director of Mallory-Neely, constructed in 1852. “Victorians, especially high society, were expected to mourn – for almost three years.”

Mallory-Neely House is one of the city’s treasured historic sites, particularly because it retains all of the original interiors, furniture and artifacts of home life. While the house hosts fun, spooky events in October, the staff dresses the house in somber cloth to educate the public about how grief was expressed in the late 1800s.MalloryNeely

I knew about the black mourning clothes, but did you know they also smoked “black cigarettes?” They covered mirrors. Understandable. When I cry, my face turns reds and puffy. Who wants to look at themselves like that?

The Victorians held “dumb suppers” to contact the dead. At these suppers, the dishes were served backwards. Dessert came first. They sat in silence and hoped for a sign. Like us, they wanted some sort of connection to soothe the seemingly unbearable loss of a loved one.

I was aghast by one practice. Adopted by families who’d lost a baby, I’m not sure it was helpful, and neither is Cooper. Families used hair from the dead baby for doll hair. The doll was put in the empty nursery, and the mother tended to the doll as she would have her child.mydoll-1.jpg

As the Victorian era phased out, as wars took over the time and energy of people, grief and mourning faded from public view, Cooper said.

“We’re pretty much expected to go on to work. You’re expected to keep that inside,” she said. “The times changed, and our style of grieving changes. I don’t know if we’ll ever go back. I don’t think so, not the way Victorians did it, but we definitely fit (mourning) into our busy lifestyles today.”

How? Whether we go to a church in solitude or collectively because of a national event, we light candles. We set up crosses on the sides of highways. On the back windows of vehicles, we emblazon memorials for husbands, sons, brothers, daughters and sisters.

We sit on Facebook and Twitter watching the videos. Staring at photos of buildings, smoke and debris. We recall where we were at the moment the Towers came down. When horror shot through our country and we grieved together.

We could not feel safe, but collectively we held one another up. It was consuming. It was overwhelming. But somehow it felt better together, as all grieving does. We aren’t alone. A memory, a loss, seared into our collective consciousness, we survive. And we never forget the sorrow – nor the way we did it together.

Have you been part of a collective, public expression of grief? What was helpful – or unhelpful – about the sharing of loss in this way?


Copyright © 2019 by Toni Lepeska. All rights reserved.

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