Day of the Dead

Halloween changed for me after my husband’s sudden death. I’ve never been able to tolerate gore and horror, so I’ve never been a fan of that part of the holiday. Funny costumes, themed costumes, cute tiny kid costumes, I’m totally on board with all of that.

Alice in Chains & The Black Crowes
Joni, Elvis & Sir Paul

Bloody, gory, terrifying images of death just upset and confuse me. If Halloween is a holiday for children, exactly how is this okay? I can’t figure it out.

My pain is less raw than that first year, but Halloween still picks at my scabs to expose my wounds and draw them to the surface. I dread being forced to face these awful visuals. We opted out of Trick-or-Treat this year because, you know, worldwide pandemic. Though I was bummed for our daughter to miss out on the fun with her friends, I also breathed a sigh of relief to get a break from the imagery.

I don’t expect people to tiptoe around my loss or understand all of my various triggers. I can’t even always see them coming. But for those who haven’t yet experienced life-shattering loss, I know it may not have occurred to them that these images can feel like an assault and insult to those who have. I don’t judge anyone for their bliss (and I might envy them sometimes). It has taken me over four years to try to voice these feelings, and I’m finally attempting to for those who would care to be sensitive, if only it was brought to their attention.

So to those of you, I offer you my humble opinion.

Death is not a joke. It is a real, present, invisible but heavy burden carried by countless people every day.

Fake tombstones epitaphs are not funny. Choosing my husband’s gravestone was one of the most brutal experiences I have ever faced. Tombstones display the words lovingly chosen to mark the precious life and death of loved ones.

Cemeteries are not scary. They are sacred places to honor lives and remember those who have passed on before us. It is their eternal space to rest in peace.

Our daughter feels this peace at her daddy’s cemetery. She enjoys taking special items to leave by his stone. She likes walking the grounds and reading the grave markers of all the other beloved people. As we walk, I set upright his neighbors’ fallen vases, statues and wreaths and untwist their flags to show my respect. I fear someday the world will taint her sweet feelings about her daddy’s cemetery. I don’t want her to ever connect the dots between frightening tombstone and skeleton decorations right back to her daddy’s beautiful resting place. How will she be able to come to terms with these stark polarities?

I do my best to find ways to keep Kenny an ever present part of our everyday lives, for me and for our children. Having grown up without my mom, I remember how it felt for me back then. We all experience grief in our own ways, but there are common threads. We want our people to be remembered. We want to hear stories about them. We need to know they still matter, they still love us, and we get to keep on loving them.

Our daughter learned about the Mexican celebration called Day of the Dead last year at school. She asked if I’d help her create a box for her daddy for the holiday. She created it with love and chose to decorate it with his favorite color, lots of rainbows, her art, his coins and a radiant photo of him in his signature bucket hat.

This year, I was surprised to find a story trail on one of our Fall Hiking Spree paths. The trail led us through to each page of the book, Día de los Muertos by Hannah Eliot.

The book details the way their culture celebrates their dead loved ones with days of festivities. They gather to cook special foods, decorate, display flowers, create altars and sugar skulls. They end their celebration at the cemetery to clean the tombstones, play music and share stories. I felt so comforted to read each page and watch our daughter race to read the next one. I seek ways to normalize death to help her see we are not alone in our loss. It can be hard to find ways to do this in our culture, so I couldn’t believe we just stumbled across this beautiful message and reminder.

Our culture desperately needs more of this–speaking of death, appreciating life, celebrating and remembering with love those who have gone on. Instead of making death terrifying, we need to face it and honor it. Life is a miracle and we get a brief moment in the span of time to experience this world together. We will all die. Everyone we love will die. It makes zero sense to keep death in the shadows to deny this truth and feel uncomfortable talking about people who have died.

So it is with great respect and love that my family chose to borrow from the Mexican celebration of The Day of the Dead to honor Kenny. Today we celebrate him with food, retelling memories, lighting his candle, watching The Yellow Submarine, playing cards, listening to his records and visiting his grave. I empower myself to embrace and create a new tradition to honor him in a new way as part of our Halloween season.

Forever In Our Hearts

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