A brother's mourning clothes: I wanted a uniform of grief

My sister was the one to care about clothes. After she died, I began to notice how little we do to signal our grief

Published February 21, 2016 11:30PM (EST)

A photo of the author with his sister Jenn
A photo of the author with his sister Jenn

Grieving Victorians in upper-middle-class society once wore mourning clothes as a public demonstration of their private losses. The rules on what to wear, and for how long, depended on the relationship of the griever to the grieved. A spouse or a sibling rated higher than a third cousin or a workplace “connection.” This determination was so complex that popular etiquette guides such as “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management” contained lengthy charts that the grief-stricken might consult.

These rules were primarily for women of the age. Men got off light, with black gloves, cravats and bands on their hats and arms. But a woman who was grieving, let’s say, a departed husband, would begin in “full mourning,” meaning that for “1 year and 1 day” she would wear “bombazine covered with crepe; widow’s cap, lawn cuffs, collars.”

All black, all the time, naturally. Letters were sent on special black-bordered paper and envelopes sealed with black wax.

After the allotted 366 days, she’d move into “second mourning,” a six-month phase that involved slightly less crepe. That would be followed by six more months of “ordinary mourning,” reintroducing fabrics of silk and wool. During the final months, jewelry and ribbons again became permissible, as a segue into the ultimate six months of “half mourning,” when colors such as gray, lavender and mauve would gradually re-enter the wardrobe.

I was fond of showing this chart to my literature students when we reached the Victorian section of the syllabus, hoping to impress upon them the inflexible, even oppressive, social order to which a 6-year-old girl like Alice in "Alice in Wonderland" would soon be expected to conform, as well as the commonplace nature of death and grieving in a society where illness and wars took people, especially the young, at a regular clip.

But after my younger sister, Jennifer, died from cancer at the age of 22, I came to see things differently.

Staring at the chart, afterward, I felt jealous. What a relief it would be, I imagined, to simply crack open “Mrs. Beeton’s” and there, just past the proper instructions for sending a thank you letter, find a chart explaining that, for the loss of a sibling, I should spend four to six months in full mourning clothes, with crepe for exactly half of that time, before skipping over the second mourning and moving right into ordinary mourning (half crepe, half black), followed by a month of half mourning when I’d gradually reintroduce color. After that, presumably, I’d be fine.

Not only might it give some outline to my pangs of overwhelming grief, but it would also clue in everyone around me to what was going on. If I blew past someone in the street in a rage, or broke down weeping on the F Train, my fellow New Yorkers would be able to look over and say, “Oh, he’s in mourning. Let’s all give him some space.” All right, they’d probably jostle me on the train as usual, but at least they’d know.

The next time I taught my lesson about Alice’s crepe-filled future, I came home and hung my dark blue jacket in the closet. Inside I saw only more blues, deep grays and, of course, black.

Each day I’d wear one of these jackets to work, always with dark jeans, black socks and black shoes. My collared shirts also ranged from blue to gray to black. I rarely went out without dark sunglasses and a pair of big, black noise-canceling headphones.

Maybe I had been in mourning clothes all along, I just hadn’t known it. Neither had anyone else.

Fashion and clothes had always been my sister Jennifer’s domain. In high school she read Vogue and Cosmopolitan, and unfailingly dressed on trend. Everything I owned came from Hot Topic; most of it was black. My friends were all on the theater’s technical crew; our main goal both backstage and in school was to avoid being seen.

Jenn would take me to the mall and try to interest me in bright, colorful Gap and Tommy Hilfiger options, but I fought her efforts to get me into preppy clothes, explaining that my grungy look was part of being a bohemian, counterculture, artsy type. My sister would beg me to, once in my life, spend more than $6 on a shirt. She thought that cargo pants were the devil’s work; I once flipped out when I saw her buy a shirt with three-quarter-length sleeves that was more expensive than the same design in full-length. “You’re literally paying more for less!” I’d yelled.

Though she was three years younger, we were around the same height and weighed about the same. In her case, the result of 20 hours a week of ballet practice and in mine the result of a coffee addiction I hoped also seemed writerly.

As far back as I can remember, Jenn refused to accept any kind of subordination to birth order. She acted older, bolder and more assertive, pushing all limits that anyone dared impose. In one classic Jansma home-movie moment, I am around 5, poised but frozen on the diving board. Jenn, no more than 2, comes up behind me in the frame and calmly pushes me in. That, more or less, was the nature of our relationship. Sometimes it drove me crazy, but most of the time I was, at least secretly, glad for the push.

Before I left for college, Jenn insisted I go to New York City with her to shop at Urban Outfitters. I went, but defiantly purchased more cargo pants. Then, while she took a ballet class uptown, I ducked into Barnes & Noble and blew my birthday money on books that I hoped would telegraph my depth to future classmates: "Nine Stories," "On the Road," "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," "Mrs. Dalloway," "Love in the Time of Cholera"none of which I would actually read for years, but which merely sat on my shelf, posturing. Naturally I bought them all in hardcover, though there were cheaper paperbacks right there, immune to the irony at my own version of three-quarter-length sleeves.

I considered myself the smart one, but her grades were better than mine and she’d read all of Jane Austen for fun. (To this day I have yet to finish a single one of her novels.) She loved classic romance films, especially any with Audrey Hepburn or Cary Grant. I liked "The X-Files." She knew all kinds of things about classical music after years of pas de deux that took her all over the Tristate area. These days I’ll sometimes put on Strauss or Chopin while I’m writing and suddenly recognize a symphony or prelude I once heard while watching her soar across a stage. I was really into Aerosmith that year.

Jenn and I rarely got along, except while watching reruns of "90210." Maybe there was something about Brandon and Brenda that appealed to us, the idea that siblings could be best friends making it through their crazy adolescence together.

Jenn left home at the age of 14, a year after I had moved out for college, and went to Philadelphia by herself to attend an intensive dance program and to pursue her dream of becoming a professional dancer. There she lived in a one-bedroom apartment with another dancer, eventually completing high school online.

While I finally learned how to go into a Banana Republic by myself, she toured the country and, later, with the Miami City Ballet, the world. Meanwhile, she took online classes through Penn State, determined to be a lawyer someday, since most dance careers ended by age 30. She had no way of knowing she’d never get close to that age.

At age 20, Jenn was dancing professionally in North Carolina, touring in Europe and China. She struggled with her weight, a common source of stress in the dance world, but unlike many of her friends, who’d use nicotine to tamp down their appetites, she was never much of a smoker. So when she first noticed a painful sore on her tongue no one suspected anything too sinister.

Dentists gave her numbing sprays and mouth guards. Used to working through pain, as anyone who ever saw her feet would know, she ignored the problem for a year until it became unbearable.

Finally someone thought it might be a good idea to do a biopsy, and the result came back positive for squamous-cell carcinoma.

More than a few times we were told that 21-year-old women who don’t smoke or chew tobacco don’t get oral cancer. But there it was. A tumor. In her year of treatment, we’d begin to hear more about cases popping up in young women, possibly connected to HPV, though no one seemed sure and by then it hardly mattered.

While undergoing her initial treatments in North Carolina, Jenn’s top priority was to get back to ballet. That summer I stayed with her for a week, shuttling her to the hospital and setting her up on the couch after we got home. Mostly, she felt fine. We went antiquing, hitting up secondhand shops and flea markets around Raleigh, looking for furniture with the fashionable “vintage” look. When we found things that looked too clean and polished, I was tasked with distressing them. One day, while she slept off a radiation treatment indoors, I stood out on the hot porch for hours, brushing a dresser with gold paint, and then a coat of white, before going at it with sandpaper to give it the proper aesthetic.

By the end of the summer the treatments were done and things were looking up. She was just getting back to dancing when they found a new lump down at the base of her throat. It had already swelled to the size of a golf ball by the time she came to New York, where I lived, to have it removed.

Jenn soon moved into the one-bedroom apartment I shared with Leah, my then-fiancée, and began a fresh course of treatment at Sloan-Kettering. There she had excellent doctors, who tried all manner of things to force the cancer into retreat. We slept on the couch so that she could have the bedroom, and she went to dance classes between doses of radiation. It was the fall of the Hollywood writers’ strike, so we watched a lot of reruns of "The Hills" and "America’s Next Top Model." Brandon and Brenda couldn’t have done better. We grew closer than we’d ever been.

The treatments had no end of side effects. The radiation left burns in her mouth that made swallowing impossible. Eventually she lost so much weight that her doctors implanted a tube directly into her stomach, which allowed us to feed her calorie-rich milkshakes from an IV bag. The walls of our apartment were soon covered in little stick-on Command hooks. We worked out a color-coded schedule to track the timings of the ever-multiplying medications Jenn needed to fight off nausea, infections, pain and more pain. But she kept losing weight; at one point she told me that her lifelong struggle to stay thin enough for ballet now seemed like a cruel joke.

Jenn stayed with Leah and me for about five months, and our parents flew up every other week. Each time we’d begun to believe we’d gotten ahead of it, new tumors popped up somewhere else. The cancer moved from her head and neck to her lymph nodes, out to her arms and her legs. Barely a year after the initial diagnosis, it was over. There with her right up to the end, I felt more relieved than anything else, exhausted and hating to see her frustrated, weak, disabled—hardly herself at all. Sadness crept in later, building up over months and then years.

After the funeral I flew home and went back to work. I finished my novel and threw it out. Leah and I continued to plan our wedding. Life continued, with me just grieving in my street clothes. On the sidewalk, the bus, the train, I’d be feeling lost, knowing that to anyone else around me I seemed like just another person, dodging eye contact, pretending not to notice that someone nearby wanted my seat.

My grief manifested in different ways. I once had to stop myself from yanking a cigarette from the lips of a student outside my building. Ten minutes later I wanted to strangle an idiot at the coffee shop obsessing over the fat content of his muffin. What mattered, and what didn’t? What did I know?

Friends would talk about job or relationship problems as if they were catastrophic. Sometimes I’d want to scream at them, but often would just find excuses to get away. I felt distant from the rest of my family, whose grieving seemed to take roads that I couldn’t find my own way down. I was overwhelmed by the idea that for the first time in my life I had truly failed at something that couldn’t be simply tried over.

I wanted a uniform of grief to wear, a black band for my hat, though I’d have settled for a heavy crepe bombazine. Something that would remind everyone else what had happened. I was glad of my ability to fake it. I could slip through the crowd without having to confront this thing stuck in my heart.

For a long time I resisted any urge to write about what had happened. Fiction makes sense of things, gives events purpose. I didn’t want any sense or purpose assigned to my sister’s death.

Four more years passed and I felt worse. I struggled to find words. Then I became a father and started seeing a therapist. At some point I realized I wanted to write something that mapped different routes through the chaos that comes after loss.

I like to think that I was lucky that Jenn was always trying to take over as older sibling, that she became the grown person she did while she had time. I like to think that, since she passed, I’ve figured out how to be a lot of the better things she was convinced I could be. I still haven’t read Austen, but I have made my way through a lot of those hardcovers that I bought when we first went to the city and began to explore what it could mean to be brother and sister on our own terms.

Now I look up in my closet and see stripes and patterns. Teals and royal purples and sunny yellows I’d never have worn, even before mourning. Colors like she’d hoped I’d wear, once upon a time.

By Kristopher Jansma

Kristopher Jansma is the author of Why We Came to the City-- published by Viking in February, and The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards-- , winner of the Sherwood Anderson Foundation Fiction Award. He lives with his wife and son in Brooklyn.

MORE FROM Kristopher Jansma

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Pick Editor's Picks Grief Life Stories Real Families