I do love Halloween but my real holiday begins tomorrow. On November 1st I celebrate Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. It’s not a holiday I grew up with but one I’ve borrowed from the Southwest and Mexico. It’s become one of my favorite holidays partly because it’s a good spiritual counterpart to Halloween. October 31st is a fun time to see little ones dressed up and yes to the candy but being scared of goblins lost its sway when I got old enough to lose people that I loved. The dead just aren’t scary in the same way anymore. In fact, I’d welcome a visit from 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 that we love who are dead.
Day of the Dead celebration centers on rituals for remembering loved ones. We can visit in our imagination or feel their presence. It can mean prayer or conversation, writing a letter or looking at old photos. The tradition that I use includes making an ofrenda, or altar, something as simple as putting photos and candles on the coffee table and taking time to talk and remember. 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 Purim or Advent, hearing Mass or saying Kaddish, small ceremonies help us sort and reframe our memories. 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 would suggest I move along in my process and quoted Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. The simplified version of her theory lists stages: Denial--Bargaining--Anger--Depression, and Acceptance. But it’s false to create an expectation of five discrete steps. This listing implies order and that a person can move from point A to point B and be done. That 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 judge 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 people who were afraid to say the word dead.. But after losing my brothers I know that lost is the perfect word to describe the feeling that follows a death. Something just out of reach, still here, but also gone.
Though they died several years ago my feeling about my brothers is that I have misplaced them; It’s that sensation of knowing that my book or that letter I was just reading, are around here somewhere…if I could just remember where I left them.
I think this is why we can sometimes be so hard on the grieving, and why we want them to go through those stages and be done with it. We love closure and things that are sealed and settled. But death and grief, for all their seeming finality, are not as final as we would like.
So on Tuesday night I’ll make cocoa and light candles; we’ll 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?