Death, Loss, and Sugar Skulls
Death is not a part of life....end of story.
It’s October and we enter a season of change. In the upper northern hemisphere regions, we find ourselves contemplating the end of the harvest as we experience the dwindling of daylight hours and the arrival of cooler temperatures. Some of us will have decorated yards that celebrate Halloween, a celebration of the spirits among us. We will intermix monsters, skeletons, witches, and ghouls. We will offer treats to avoid tricks and perhaps present the promise of a possible trick or two to entice treats. (One of my neighbors loves to spring traps on the trick-or-treaters: this year, a monster pops out of his recycling can; last year, a Sumo wrestler answered the door.)
Why do we make death into a holiday?
For millennia, human beings have coped with a fear of death. All major religions have offered stories, rituals, and blessings to help us muddle through our grieving at the loss of a loved-one and to help us manage our own internal anxieties around our inevitable expiration. In some churches, we call the roll of the recently departed annually on “All Saints” day. Halloween or All Hallowed Eve is the night before the roll call when the spirits gather to receive their blessing. One of my favorite restaurants in Atlanta, Bone Garden Cantina, has a wonderful celebration of Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) complete with sugar skull caps, dancers, and staff with faces painted as skeletons.
No matter how we choose to cope, we still find ourselves trying to make sense of the imperfection of impermanence, or as a dying friend of mine observed: “I don’t like this stage of immortality.”
In my profession, I find myself encouraging clients to come to terms with the questions of existence and to engage life – what am I to do with my life? How do I find more satisfying and fulfillment in life? Such important questions require both attention and attunement: attending to what we as individuals might offer to the world and attunement to what the world is asking of us.
These are the questions of life, but with a serious understanding that life passes more quickly than we would like. In my profession, individuals come to visit who have experienced repeated encounters with death: the early loss of a close parent, the tragic loss of a loved one, followed by the recent loss of a beloved pet. For them, grieving sometimes overshadows any existential question about the meaning of life or finding more fulfillment. The hole left in their life by the recent loss feels too much like death itself has taken a place in their heart.
While I understand the process of grief through the lens of neuroscience, the knowledge itself does not offer much consolation. But I can translate my understanding of neuroscience of loss like this: “It feels like a part of you has died, doesn’t it?”
In fact, that is exactly what has happened and the feelings of emptiness and loneliness convey that message of dying in a very real and sometimes nearly unbearable way. We feel the loss intensely and often the feeling is accompanied by a feeling of being lost. Loss is disorienting and disconcerting – it has no place in life but we are haunted both by its shadow and its occasional interruptions in our living.
We cope by turning to rituals, by entering a state of mourning, and hopefully, by eventually finding a way to celebrate the life-force that was present in our lives for a time. We celebrate with memories and memorials, with sacraments, traditions, and special days. We hope that morning will come, that renewal will emerge, and one day, that the pain will subside.
If you find yourself in need of mourning, please take time to invoke and accept the resources of friends, communities, and support networks. And if you need us, we're here to help. We offer special services to help individuals and family find comfort and work through the questions that loss brings up for each of us.
We believe that Death is not a part of Life. Living is. Let’s talk together about the next step in the journey.