The year I got married my grandmother passed away. Two weeks after my wedding, my family and I drove to Arlington National Cemetery to say our last goodbyes. The staff at Arlington were so kind and everything was going smoothly, but when we got to the graveside, and I saw her name etched in the stone, something finally snapped in me. I realized then that there would be no more phone calls of “I love you, sweety.” No more giggling while recounting her latest adventure. Tears streaming down my cheeks, I ran back to the car. I could still hear the other attendees singing, but I couldn’t say goodbye anymore.
I’ve always had a difficult time with death and loss. I don’t mourn well. That year grandma’s loss was a shadow that colored the year in grief. Spurred by that grief, I decided to celebrate Día de los Muertos for the first time. Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is not the Mexican version of Halloween. It is a Mexican celebration of the Catholic religious holiday called All Souls Day on November 2nd, and it is meant to help us celebrate and remember those we love that have passed on. Each family is different, but usually you decorate your house in your loved one’s favorite colors, flowers, and colorful decorations. You also cook their favorite foods, sweetbreads, and candy skulls. You design an ofrenda with pictures of your loved ones, flowers, decorations, and trinkets that remind you of them. That year we decorated the house in red mums, my grandmother’s favorite color, and made her favorite meal. As we ate, I told my husband my favorite stories about my grandmother, and he told me his favorite stories about his grandfather that had passed years ago. It may seem simple, but for the first time that year, the weight of her loss was gone. Usually death catches me off guard, approaching only on its own terms. But on Día de los Muertos I was able to approach it my own way, with food and precious memories. It made the grief easier to process. We’ve celebrated Día de los Muertos every year since. It is my favorite holiday, because I am surrounded by the memories of those I love most, and for one day they do not feel so far out of my reach.
This year, grief has been a shadow cast across the whole world. A global pandemic has made loss of loved ones all too common. So, I encourage anyone struggling with grief, like me, to embrace the message of Día de los Muertos. Take at least one day to make their favorite foods, pull out their favorite things, share your favorite memories, and take some agency back for your mourning. Día de los Muertos taught me that the people I love never truly leave me, they live on through my love for them and my memories of them. It teaches me not to fear death, as it is a natural part of life, but rather to celebrate the bonds we share which transcend the uncontrollable events of life. These lessons brought me great comfort when my grandmother died. During this period of unprecedented death, these lessons are even more crucial.