Day to renew relationships with the lost

November 02, 2005|By DIANE CAMERON

Today I am celebrating 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 has become one of my favorite holidays partly because it's a good spiritual counterpart to Halloween.

Except for the candy, Oct. 31 doesn't leave much for grown-ups. Being scared of goblins and ghouls 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. 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 that we love who have died.

The Day of the Dead celebration centers on rituals for remembering loved ones and the relationship we had with them. 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 Mexican 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, reconceived.

This isn't a very American idea. Culturally, our preferences are for efficiency and effectiveness; even with grief, we use words such as closure and process.

I remember my frustration when I was grieving and well-intentioned friends would suggest I move along in my process, quoting psychiatrist Elisabeth 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 distinct 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, score gains or losses and get to a 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 words "dead" or "died." But after losing my brother, Larry, I know that "lost" is the perfect word to describe the feeling that follows a death.

Though he died several years ago, my feeling about my brother is that I have misplaced him. It's a sensation of knowing that my book or my glasses, that letter I was just reading, is 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 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 tonight I'll make cocoa and light candles; we'll look at pictures and we'll 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?

Diane Cameron lives in Valatie, N.Y. Her e-mail address is oklota@localnet.com.

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