My first visit to Swaziland, Southern Africa, was in the summer of 2002. I recommend going in some other season; it was 115 degrees the afternoon we landed. We were met by one of the Cabrini volunteers I had recently sent to serve at a rural mission there.
That first day, we stopped in Manzini, one of two large cities in this tiny country, to meet some other Cabrini people for lunch. We sat outside at an Italian restaurant in a strip mall, shaded by large umbrellas.
The heat was oppressive. It seemed to rise up from baked sidewalks, enveloping us like a blanket. I could hardly breathe.
Then I became aware of women walking in and out of the nearby shops, clothed in layers of flowing black fabric covering every inch of them; even their heads were covered. No one else in our group seemed to notice them.
I try to be culturally sensitive when I travel, but the sight of these black-clad women in the oppressive heat so startled me that I blurted out, “Why are those women wearing black?”
“They are widows,” was the answer. In Swaziland, a widow covers herself in black for one year after the death of her spouse. She marks the end of this grieving period by hosting a dinner for her family and friends.
Ten years later, after my friend Jim died, I remembered the widows of Swaziland.
Soon after Jim died, I realized how quickly other people move on with their lives. Even people who were right by my side during Jim’s illness did not remember the milestones that were shaping my life—the monthly anniversaries of his death, or the one-year anniversary of the day he was diagnosed or the anniversary of the day he left the hospital. I was marking time, not by calendar days, but by the events of Jim’s last year of life. I was grieving.
I longed for some type of outward sign of my grief, something that would explain my sudden outbursts of tears, my forgetfulness and my inability to park my car between the lines in a parking lot. Grief was affecting all aspects of my life in ways I could not have imagined.
How wonderful it would have been to have an instantly-recognizable sign that said, “I am grieving,” that would remind people to give me some extra space, an allowance for my not quite being myself.
It is now almost one year since Jim died, and I have learned so much about grieving, my own and others. I have learned that no two people grieve in the same way or on the same timeline. I have also come to a deep appreciation for the wisdom of the Swazi custom of a public sign of grief.