Today I am celebrating Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. This isn’t a holiday I grew up with, but one I’ve borrowed from the Southwest and Mexico. It’s become one of my favorite holidays because it’s a good counterpart to Halloween. Except for the candy, October 31st doesn’t leave much for grownups. Being scared of goblins lost its sway when I got old enough to lose people that I loved. I’m not spooked by the idea of ghosts now; in fact, I’d welcome a visit from some of them.
That’s what Day of the Dead is about. There is a belief that on this day the veil separating this world and the next is thinner and so it’s a time we can be closer to those who have died.
Day of the Dead has rituals to help us remember our loved ones. We can visit in our imagination or feel their presence. We can use prayer or conversation or begin by looking at old photos. The Mexican tradition that I use includes making an ofrenda, or altar, something as simple as putting photos and candles on the coffee table. We also have chocolate as a symbol of the sweet and bitter separation from those we love.
A ritual is a way of ordering life. Whether hearing Mass or saying Kaddish, small ceremonies help us to sort and reframe. When someone dies the relationship doesn’t stop, it’s renegotiated, literally re-conceived.
This isn’t a very American idea. Culturally our preferences are for efficiency and effectiveness; even with grief we use words like closure and process.
I remember my frustration when I was grieving and well-intentioned friends suggested I was taking too long and quoted Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The simple version of her theory lists stages: Denial--Bargaining--Anger--Depression, and Acceptance. But this list implies that a person can move from point A to point B and be done. It makes grief seem like an emotional Monopoly game where you go around the board, collect points and get to a distinct and certain end. This false notion of linearity is apparent when we hear people speak of someone who is grieving, “Oh, she missed the anger stage”, or “He hasn’t reached acceptance yet.”
I always thought that “losing a loved one” was a euphemism used by those who were afraid to say the word dead. But after losing my brother Larry I know that lost is the perfect word to describe the feeling following a death.
Though he died several years ago my feeling about my brother is that I have misplaced him; It’s that sensation of knowing that my book or my glasses are around here somewhere…if I could just remember where I left him. It’s a sense of something just out of reach, still here, but also gone.
This is why we can be so hard on the grieving, and why we want them to go through those stages and be done. We love things that are sealed and settled. But death and grief, for all their seeming finality, are not as final as we would like.
So tonight I’ll make cocoa and light candles; we will look at pictures and tell stories and we’ll laugh.
The root of the word grieve is heavy. We carry our dead as a cherished burden. Death ends a life but not a relationship. Who would want to close the door on that?