Kriah is the tradition of rending garments to represent the tear in your heart when losing a loved one. It is a way to show outwardly that you are in mourning. That way, other people you come in contact with know that they should treat you with exceptional kindness and compassion.
Originally, people tore their clothing to represent their loss, but today we sometimes use a black ribbon that is worn on the outside of your clothing. Kriah ribbons are traditionally worn by immediate mourners – a spouse, child, sibling or parent of the person who has passed. Children who are mourning a parent wear the ribbon on their left side, symbolizing that they are the direct lineage of the person who passed. All others wear the ribbon on the right side.
The ribbon is traditionally worn for the seven day shiva period but some rabbis suggest wearing it for 30 days.
Below is a poem written by Harold M. Schulweis about the tradition of kriah.
Krieh – Tearing the Cloth
Why rend the clothes?
So strange to a tradition
not to break or to destroy
It is for the sake of anger
against the unfairness of the world
anger against him or her, God or self?
Is tearing the cloth to give outer expression
to the tattered soul within?
Or is it a parallelism
the death of a person like the burning of a Sefer Torah
for which tearing the clothes is performed?
The burial of a human like the burial of a Torah
A human being is like a Sefer Torah
Studied, it has wisdom to impart
Lived, it has goodness to convey.
Rend the garments for the “Torah-mensch”
Each of us a letter in the Torah scroll
Together our lives are intertwined
Our common fate and faith
our common destiny
find us like the stitches of the parchment
when any of us is lost
The holy text is torn.
In memory we are mended.