The purple ribbons line the streets of a small suburban Chicago town. Tied to the trees that line the roads in town, they mark the passing of a ten-year-old girl, who died in a skiing accident over the Christmas holidays. Whenever I pass the purple ribbons, I am brought up short by the recognition of loss and tragedy that has befallen a local family. While most of us were cleaning up stray bits of wrapping paper and pine needles, this family was burying their child.
Tying ribbons around trees as a symbol goes back to the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran. The wife of the American ambassador, inspired by the popular song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon,” decided to do just that in front of her home until her husband was brought home safely. The families of the other hostages followed suit, and a tradition was born. During the Gulf War and ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans have used the yellow ribbon to symbolize the cherished wish that our American soldiers come home safely from armed conflict overseas.
In recent years, communities have taken to adorning their trees with ribbons of varying colors as a symbol of mourning for a lost neighbor, friend, or family member. The colors vary, sometimes according to the deceased person’s favorite hue, sometimes symbolizing a medical condition or occupation, such as blue for police officers.
The appearance of the ribbons can be a trial for the bereaved. I have a friend whose husband died and who requested that the ribbons in his memory be removed shortly after the funeral. As much as she appreciated the loving effort of friends and neighbors, she just could not bear the daily reminders of loss every time she traveled through town.
Yet the ribbons can also be a beautiful, wordless gesture of support for those left behind. And they are a reminder that life is fleeting, tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us, and we must hold close to the ones we love and let them know we cherish them each and every day.