Thanksgiving and Historical Musing

Originally, this was going to be a post about Thanksgiving, and how my warm-and-fuzzy love for my friends and families (biological and otherwise) overcame my knee-jerk reaction of “Screw. You.” After all, I have a lot to be thankful for.

But then I was still feeling sad, so I left it. And then I wondered if I still talk about grief too much, and why can’t I be an adult and keep my feelings inside? And then I started panicking about being a burden and a Negative Nellie. Then I wrote a really long post about my absolute dependency on work/writing as a means of distracting my mind from itself, but I deleted it.

Deep breaths.

So, anxiety isn’t fun. Neither is grief. Mix the two of them, remove every distraction, and you have yourself quite a party.


And now I’m here, wondering if writing about the grieving process is brave or just irritating. Does it shine a light into the dark spaces to discover that none of us going this is alone? Or does it just shine it into the eyes of everyone else, making them throw their hands up and cry, “Owww!”

“Turn it off! Turn it off!”

It’s a question of public vs private processing, I suppose. And it occurs to me that I can drag history into this. Last year, during one of our special Halloween weekends at the living history museum, I was assigned to be “in mourning.” I got to wear a special black dress, a veil, and gloves, park myself in front of a casket, and talk about mourning customs (in character). It was some of the most fun I’ve had at work.

I’m never doing it again.

When in mourning, kids wore white.

But here’s where I’m going to make the connection (and adopt my Interpreter Voice). See, in the Victorian era, grief and mourning were hugely public displays. There were strict codes and timelines, depending on your relationship to the deceased. Dress was particularly prescribed. Widows wore full mourning—black clothing: especially crape, since it doesn’t combine well with anything—for a year. Second mourning followed for nine months. Widows still wore drab fabric, but with some trim and the veil worn back over the head. Finally, this all lightened to half mourning, a period of three to six months characterized by a gradual return to colours (greys, mauve, browns, etc.).

Children mourned their parents for a year.

Among the upper classes (and those aspiring to the upper classes) the grieving process was incredibly intricate and elaborate. This is where we find hearses drawn by black horses wearing black plumes, ornate headstones, long wakes with the body lying in repose…. During those first, numb days, as we were scrambling to make arrangements, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like for the Victorians.

The Duke of Wellington’s funeral (1852) was an almost theatrical affair.

After all, you’re not thinking clearly. You’re in shock. It’s very much like being in a dream; you look back on it later and wonder how any of it seemed to make any sense at the time (I remember showing up at choir rehearsal Tuesday night—two nights after—and being very confused as to why people were surprised to see me).

But I digress. My point was that while the outward display didn’t necessarily match what was happening on the inside, Victorian mourning didn’t hide itself. Somewhere along the line, we became uncomfortable with grief—our own and others’. We started shunting death aside. After the funeral, you’re kind of left to stumble along as best you can, never quite sure if you’re “doing it right.”

Of course, there is no right way, not really. That can be comforting, but sometimes, it’d be nice to know that the feelings at any given point are normal. Does this mean I prefer the Victorians’ mourning?

Not necessarily. It’s funny, though. Last fall, as I brightly responded to visitors’ comments about the casket’s small size with, “Wellington was big where it counted…in his heart!” I felt sorry for widows having to still wear mourning clothing two years on, because surely they’d be over it by then?

Now, I feel bad for the children, given only a year to mourn their parents. At least on the outside.

I guess no one, Victorian or otherwise, really knows how to handle grief. And perhaps that’s comforting. If no one knows what the heck is going on, no one expects you to have an answer.

But yeah, Canadian Thanksgiving this weekend. I’m intensely thankful for all of you. Lots of hugs.


Posted on October 11, 2013, in Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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