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Bring Back the Black Armband!

Orphans with black armbands to mourn their mother F.M. Brown 1865


I wish I had a black arm band, a sign to say I am in mourning.
I went online but can’t find any at Amazon.
Except police. They can get cheap bands online and so can teams who lose a member.
I discovered that “Black Arm Band” is a group of Australia’s premier indigenous musicians.


When I visited the Aboriginal embassy outside the parliament of Australia’s capital, Canberra, a 40-year-old occupy” movement, I saw people who know grief.

My friend Martin, a doctor, once attended an Aboriginal “Sorry Camp.”  He joined a patient’s family in the desert outside of town the night of her death. Under the dark sky people wept and wept, held in each other’s laps saying, “Sorry. Sorry.” There was food and bodies that rhythmically bumped shoulder to shoulder. This was what their grieving body wanted.

My body needs to recognize the profound loss of a loved one. Mostly, I am doing this alone, yet glad that I don’t live in 18th century England.

“By the 19th century, mourning behaviour in England had developed into a complex set of rules, particularly among the upper classes. Women bore the greatest burden of these customs. They involved wearing heavy, concealing, black clothing, and the use of heavy veils of black crêpe…”widow’s weeds” (from the Old English “Waed” meaning “garment”).

… There was special mourning jewelry, often made of jet and with the hair of the deceased in a locket or brooch…Widows were expected to wear special clothes to indicate that they were in mourning for up to four years after the death, although a widow could choose to wear such attire for the rest of her life. …  In general, servants wore black armbands when there had been a death in the household.

One blogger says “The fashion for heavy mourning was drastically reduced after the Great War.  So many individuals died that just about everyone was in mourning for someone. By 1918 a whole new attitude had developed and this was hastened even further by the Second World War.”

The world had so much mourning that people couldn’t handle that much black? My husband, a hospice chaplain, said, “Maybe if all the women had worn black there wouldn’t have been a second world war.”

Death, the great teacher, is invisible on our streets, in our cafe’s and schools. So, I am considering a black arm band thanks to my good friend and muse Sharon Pavelda, a death midwife and persona known as Mortina DeKay, the merry mortician who asks, “What if the reaper isn’t grim?” She agrees that we need a sign that death has us by the sleeve.

If I find a black arm band I might just wear it until it falls off. How do you move in the world when death leads?


  1. my mom came over to america from italy when she was a teenager. my nonna and all of her italian friends wore “house dresses” to do all of their work, inside and outside the house. there were boxes of black dresses that got passed back and forth when someone died. they would wear black for an entire year: to show respect, to grieve together in community, and to let the outside world know that they were in a state of mourning. life continues but there is a different flavor to it when we are walking alongside grief in our days.
    i put my black on today for you cynthia to grieve together in “our” community.

  2. Sharie says:

    A couple of weeks after my mother’s death I was scheduled to lead an InterPlay class in Olympia. I showed up a little fragile and as I started the class I mentioned that my mom had died recently. A minister who attended the class came up to me after class to thank me, and she gave me a black bracelet to wear through the grief. She says she keeps a supply of them and gives them to people. I was very moved by this stranger’s compassion. It has been a source of remembrance for me of the truth of my heart even as I move through life…when it feels like the world should stop and wait for me.
    And I keep dancing through all of grief’s mysteries as the body continues to come to terms with truth of the final separation from my mom.

  3. When my mother went in for her last and final surgery, I wanted to sleep w/ or close to her the night before. She was sleeping on a little sofa in the front room of the military hospital hotel accommodations so I pulled the only (really uncomfortable looking) chair in the room up as close as I could get and slept ever so comfortably.
    Sorry, sorry, dear one. Lovingly, Lila

  4. dyck says:

    Yes yes yes yes, teach us too dear messenger as your mother goes on teaching you about the process of death and of birth the sacred process the sacred teaching that may somedway turn to life celebration.

  5. Supriya says:

    Dear Cynthia,
    I have been following your and ur families journey with ur mother from Alzheimer to her final transition, how you all have supported her in life and death.Great sharing, and i am learning experiencing grief at a deep level.
    Thank you Cynthia, my prayers to all of you and the departed soul.
    Supriya from Mumbai.

  6. Barbara says:

    How do you move in the world when death leads?
    You slowly dance following its lead and be open to find the moments of celebration until they overtake the grim. It can take a long time.
    You have been courageouse to share your struggles. That is the dance you have shared– it is a dance of promise and faith when it is hard to believe. Such is hope.
    My prayer for you and yours these difficult days!

  7. ripped fabric
    ripped life
    pattern now different
    there is a hole where it once was whole.
    although a garment can be resewn, it will never be the way it once was; as is our life when a loved one dies.

    there is a custom/ ritual in Jewish life, known as Keria, which is the tearing of a garment ( done by hand, not scissors, e.g.) worn by the mourner.(on the left side for a parent)because the left side is closest to the heart and parents are closest to the heart of the child. it is biblical in origin. This torn garment is worn for the 7 day period after burial, known as Shiva.
    Perhaps we can tear our garments as a community and then resew together, also as a community ;to bind our actions and feelings as we support you during this sacred time.
    like so much of what Interplay makes space for, we make space: for grief, for loss, for each other.

  8. Gina Casey says:

    Cynthia I am blessed to witness your journey. Thank you.

    In Australia when we are mourning in the sports we wear a black band of electrical tape. In Korea the colour of mourning is white. In my Indigenous part of my heritage the night sky is reversed – the stars are the souls of the dead and the dark areas are the astronomical features. I now look for your mother in that pattern and wonder where she is.

    I also like that in the Jewish tradition while you wear the Keria you are not expected to be anything for the days – you can be sad, mad, angry etc. It is a time for the person just to be be. When I lose my mother I shall use the rich tapestry of many cultures to help.

    For our generations of the stolen generation there is no time for the mourning of the loss of mothers as they were taken from so many. The link for the Black Arm Band project http://www.blackarmband.com.au/. It is more than music, it is about indigenous community reconciliation, resilience and health & wellbeing.


  9. I move slower and with a heavier step. Sometimes it feels like when I wake from a deep sleep, and part of me is still in the place where I went in the long night. I find myself wanting to connect these two worlds, so I can be in both places at the same time.
    Rituals and ceremonies, women’s circles, Interplay forms, especially Dancing on Behalf, all give me the opportunity to be where I am while connected to others and to the Great Mystery to which we are all apart.
    Dearest Cynthia, are not alone – you are in my heart. Listen to its beat, in rhythm to your own. Love, Sheila

  10. Ingrid says:

    It has been 15 years since my mother’s death, preceded by my father’s 14 years before that. My mom, Viola, still occasionally visits me in dreams – her beautiful 25 year old self (one who I never new) with shoulder length wavy reddish brown hair, freckles, red lipstick and nail polish. She is happy and I feel her presence so profoundly. There are still times when I slip into that emptiness of life without her. I still miss her terribly. She was my confidant and greatest encourager of my artful passions. It is a dance that will continue for all my time here on earth. There is a sweetness to the grief now, however. My life is full of other concerns that grieve me. The loss of a loved one transforms all that. My heart is with you, Cynthia.

  11. Dame says:

    I am sorry for your loss. You can make your own armband; in fact I once saw a website on ehow about making mourning armbands.

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