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The Black Wreath: History’s Healthier Way of Dealing with Grief

September 26, 2018

 

The mental health of the modern world could be improved by reviving the old tradition of hanging black wreaths when a family has experienced a death. I remember as a child, going on a field trip to the historic mayor’s house in Prescott, Arizona. As we were on the tour, I noticed a black wreath hanging on the door. The tour guide explained that back in the pioneer days, people would place those wreaths on doors to let people know that a death had taken place in the family. As an all knowing, immortal 6th grader, I thought the idea was pretty dumb. Now that I am older and immersed in a techno-centric, society that has a great deal of trouble addressing its emotional needs, I believe that our forefathers had a much healthier connection to their emotions, especially the emotion of grief.

 

Our culture has a huge problem dealing with loss. We cling to the comforting lights of modern distractions in hopes that the uncomfortable feelings regarding life and death will simply go away. The best examples of this modern denial are found at funerals. Funerals have become a study in awkwardness, as people do not know what to say, what to do, and wonder why they are at the funeral in the first place. Outbursts from repressed feelings of loss have become the norm, and psychologists are ready with pen in hand to medicate our blues away. The modern pathos for aiding the grieving might be summarized with the statement, “Sometimes life stinks, we don’t know why, and pass me another beer.”

 

The author of the book of Ecclesiastes comments on human grief in a completely different way than our modern culture. Ecclesiastes 7:2-3 states: “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.” This ancient writer believed that mourning was a spiritual necessity for making one’s life stronger. Those experiencing loss need to be reminded that grief is not purposeless, nor is grief intended to tear down, but rather to build up.

 

Using the acrostic TIME, we can see how our forefathers had a far healthier understanding of grief. The pace of modern life does not allow time to grieve, and our mental health suffers because we do not take time to properly process the feelings of grief.

 

T stands for trauma. When someone has lost a loved one, they have experienced a great spiritual and emotional wound that requires immediate and full attention. The black wreath on the door was a full declaration of sorrow, and an unspoken plea for understanding and sensitivity. Today’s society degrades mourning as a sign of weakness and does its best to shove the pain of loss from the modern conscience. The modern mourner is encouraged to move on and cover up his grief, regardless of the damage to his psyche.

 

I stands for introspection. Nothing brings sharper clarity or better priorities than death. With the death of a loved one, people recognize what truly is important to them. A great deal of good can be accomplished in these times, but because it is emotionally difficult, many shirk away from this important task. The black wreath allowed families to give themselves enough room to set about the difficult job of remodeling themselves. The modern mourner is encouraged to dull the pain and ignore the questions that come with grief.

 

M stands for memorial. Attaching significance to something tangible in honor of someone’s memory is extremely healthy for the grieving. Honoring the life of a loved one, and remembering what they have added to our lives, gives purpose to the mourner. What the black wreath explained to the world was that the grieving are suspending everything else in an attempt to remember well those who had departed. The modern mourner lacks the space and time to properly put loved ones to rest.

 

E stands for emotions. It is hard to imagine rough cowboys being in better touch with their emotions than our modern world, but our grandfathers and grandmothers wisely chose to warn people about their emotional state. The pain of death brings about a noxious cocktail of turbulent emotions. The black wreath was not necessarily a symbol for people to stay away, but rather a symbol to tread lightly. Hurt people hurt people, and we are wise to recognize that. Many modern mourners explode at friends and co-workers, because they have failed to properly warn others about their emotional state.

 

Perhaps the greatest use of the black wreath was removing it after a certain period of time. The removal symbolized that the shock of loss and the intense period of focus were now come to a conclusion. Life could resume in full force now that the loss had been reasonably dealt with. Modern mourners lack the expectation that closure will happen, and that they can some day take down the “black wreaths” in their lives. We do well to remember how our ancestors became strong through the process of grief. Perhaps we should consider hanging one of those black wreaths ourselves when next we grieve?

 

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