The Fabric of Grief

Author: Sarah Greene

(What’s in Your Closet?)

Whatever you find in your jewelry box, drawers, and closets these days, rest assured that you are not alone and that your tastes will likely change yet again.

Has your wardrobe changed since the loss of your loved one? I can tell you that mine has definitely changed. I have expressed (and sometimes embarrassed) myself in almost every clothing choice throughout my grief, and I don't think I am alone. 

Clothes in Closet

The first year, I always wore a baseball hat; it was the best shield against the sympathetic looks and required very little peripheral vision. My nosy neighbor asked why I was always wearing the baseball hat and I told him it was to avoid conversations-but he never got the message. My clothing was routinely mismatched, unkempt, and a complete product of grief. I wore sunglasses a lot, too. They hid my hideously puffy red eyes from the public and protected me from eye contact. The sunglasses worked well inside and outside, but it was hard to read labels in the grocery store.

I lost some weight and my clothes became a little bigger. I sometimes wore my jeans without washing them for a long time. Eventually, I started buying clothes that had an interesting message to them. Some were decidedly unisex duds that said "keep away" to males and "I am a tough broad." Others showed how I wanted to regress to the innocence of youth. I bought Chuck Taylor sneakers again; they made my feet remember being young and carefree.

I wore a lot of my husband's clothes in the early years of grief. I liked the feeling of his flannel shirts wrapping me up in a hug from my past. I wore his camouflage pants on a couple of occasions, his dog tags, his flight jacket in winter, and his t-shirts to bed. Sadly, the smell of my Dave has dissipated from the fabric of his clothing even though it is still ingrained in the fabric of my life. I think of him every day, and sometimes I wear his wedding band on a necklace. My own wedding band is on my right hand. It is there to comfort me and probably to let others know that I am a widow.

I have found that after nine years, my wardrobe has somewhat normalized. Each day is different. On certain days I wear a TAPS shirt to announce to the world that I have sacrificed my heart on the altar of freedom. I now wear running shoes and I wear them out! I sometimes don something dressy, but it took a long time to want to do this, since I had only dressed up for my husband in my previous life. Much of the time I am a jeans and t-shirt girl, like I always was.

I have found that I also wear my new identity: my protective mommy pride, my vulnerability, and my new-found strength. Perhaps, my most important accessory is my smile. It is not always easy to wear, and sometimes it shows the strain of suffering, the emptiness of grief, and the loss of self that has churned inside of me all these years. But my smile is also hard earned and life affirming! It is most genuine when I meet someone who wears their own grief, too.

Over the years, I may have worn myself thin, worn myself down, and worn myself out. I have been distressed, dressed to express, and redressed. But I realize as I stare into my closet each morning, the choice I make still expresses how I feel, how I want to be perceived, and who I am.

And sometimes, I still don't have a thing to wear! 

Here's how some of our other TAPS survivors have altered their wardrobe and accessories in the time since their loved ones died:

Kathi, surviving mother of Samuel: Jewelry has been the big change. I now rotate between a locket with Sam's picture in it, my Gold Star pendant, and a Marine Corps heart-shaped pendant. I also wear a memorial bracelet and memorial dog tags with Sam's picture on it. 

Deb, surviving mother of Elizabeth: Seven years later, I still wear Beth's clothes. They bring comfort and make me feel closer to her. They are like a cocoon that shelters and protects me. I still need more than memories; I need the tactile feel of being near her. I have worn one of her dog-tags since the day the military gave them back to us. Tom, her dad, wears the other.

Rose, surviving spouse of Troy: I used to wear a lot of dresses and skirts for my husband, but now I wear pants a lot. There's one colorful and beautiful skirt that he liked me to wear. I don't wear that skirt anymore, but I still keep it and sometimes look at it. It reminds me of my husband.

Cathy, surviving mother of Jacob:  I have two silver bracelets, one with a heart that says, "You are always in my heart," the other with a number charm 23 with a birthstone bead and a charm number for the years he has been in eternal heaven. I change the number of the eternal bead for the next number on his birthday each year.

Diane, surviving mother of Caleb: My attire is dressier than it was. I represent my hero, my son, in my life.

Mary, surviving mother of Timothy: I am relieved to say that I am wearing street clothes as opposed to bed clothing! I was in bed for 17 hours a day for two years, but I dress every day now. My special ornaments are the kittens Timothy gave me three months before he died, two Russian Blues who are all grown up. I hold them and drape them like furs around my neck many times a day. I feel their hearts beating and feel connected to my darling son.

Merry, surviving mother of Wesley: I wear his bright red t-shirt on Friday: not for heart health, but to support the troops.

Rose, surviving mother of Nicholas:  I try not to wear black much. It took me a long time to go back to wearing the color red. It was too bright and too happy a color for me. I even gave away some of my clothes that were too cheerful. 

Kathy, surviving mother of Jon:  I wear my trident necklace that my son gave me soon after he passed Navy SEAL training and said "never take it off." His dad wears our son's Gold Squadron cap.

Mary-Ann, surviving mother of Blake:  I tend to dress plainer than I used to. I try not to wear anything that is apt to have people start asking questions about Blake. That can still be painful to go into. I'm not into the latest styles and don't seem to wear as much jewelry.

Betsy, surviving mother of Brad: My wardrobe underwent a drastic change after Brad's death. At first I only wore black to match my mood. Then I expanded to include Army green. Gradually I allowed red, white, and blue. After about five years, I bought something orange. At the time I realized that it must be a sign of healing: my wardrobe had morphed from grief-wear to patriot-wear to a new normal.

By Sarah Greene, surviving spouse of LtCol David Greene