Finally, today, I can break out the fun colors. Pinks, purples, corals, blues, and even bright happy teals. I’m talking about fingernail polish. For the past year I’ve confined myself to wearing only dark, dark shades.
I’ve done so as a means to mourn the death of my mother.
The traditional ways of mourning the death of a loved one have fallen by the wayside in our shiny, busy world. I mean, I thought about wearing black for an entire year, but that wouldn’t go over so well at work because of uniform requirements as well as the nature of the job.
There was a moment I wanted (needed?) to stay home for a couple of weeks and just be sad. I was feeling like I couldn’t contain myself and would break down into a puddle of mush any minute – I didn’t want to do that in front of my colleagues. But, of course and like most, I’m only allowed a couple days off for a family death. So I mustered the strength and with monumental effort shoved aside all that pain, plastered a smile on my face that I was certain looked as fake as it felt, and drove myself to the high school where I worked.
I had to get creative. I had to find a way to mark the grieving period, a way to show respect to my mother who lived a life full of challenges yet exhibited a toughness and fierce independence, she deserved that honor. So in my own little corner of carved out existence, I thought about some gesture that could fill the job of acknowledging my grief, at least to myself, while still going about the business of being a citizen in a frantic society. I realized that one action I could take was to wear only dark fingernail polish until the first anniversary of her death. I made a vow to do so.
It was indeed a small gesture, but to my surprise it was exactly the right one. It wasn’t easy. This decision came at the beginning of summer when bright orange or yellow would typically decorate the end of my phalanges, shouting to the world that I was ‘with it,’ and ‘on trend’ with the fashionable hues. Besides, I am generally a big fan of vividly colored fingertips, they scream fun! energetic! this is me! Yet, there I was with mud browns, black purples, and dark blues that captured zero light and received no compliments, living out the promise I made to the universe that I was setting aside this time for my mother.
Winter came and went, including a couple of firsts that were difficult to endure: mom’s birthday and Christmas. It wasn’t so hard to keep to dark shades then, the weather and lack of daylight was in keeping with my mournful aspect. But I did find myself growing weary of the same five nail colors and when I usually break out an iridescent orange in the middle of January as an instinctive reaction to missing the sun and yearning for summer, I instead slathered on one more layer of ‘Gunmetal’, but with a smile of contentment: I found it somehow healing to deny myself this small thing out of deference to my beloved mom.
Spring arrived after enduring days and days and days and days of rain. I ran out of two of my favorite dark colors and was rotating between just three others. On the premise of “I only have a few more months left, I don’t want to waste the money.” I didn’t purchase anything new. I found I was okay with the narrow selection anyway: as the anniversary grew closer, the more meaningful the memorial became.
I was able to end that memorial yesterday, the first anniversary of my mother’s death. There’s a sense of relief in it’s arrival – all the ‘firsts’ are out of the way, I’ve survived them. Her birthday will come and go, but none as painful as that first one without her. I can announce to myself that I am done mourning now. I can throw out the three remaining dark shades of polish, and keep bright happy colors on my quick typing fingers the rest of my days, if I want.
Grieving the death of a loved one is work. It requires time and attention and the ability to step aside from life for just a moment in order to process the pain and adjust to a new reality. The society we’ve built in the US doesn’t allow us that. In fact, it would deny the mourning process altogether if it could. I recall the words of President Bush after 9/11 when he urged us to ‘get back to normal’ as soon as possible. After the loss of a loved one, there is no normal as we know it. We MUST have time to reflect and assimilate our new life. Anyone who has denied themselves the room to grieve will attest that doing so only makes it worse to deal with later, or it solidifies into a mass of anger that no one can identify. In our current society, we have to be strong and rely on our ingenuity and adaptability for ways to mourn the departed while still functioning at the hundred-ten percent capacity required by the system. Maybe its a once a week trip to the Synagogue that you normally wouldn’t take, maybe it’s a black tie that can be worn every Wednesday, maybe it’s a black curtain in the kitchen window, maybe it’s strictly dark nail polish for a year. Whatever the solution, there still remains the ability to set aside holy time for a loved one, in some way, that enables the healing process. I encourage you to find one that works for you if ever the unfortunate need arises.