death and grieving issues


La Catrina – In Mexican folk culture, the Catr...

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Halloween once marked the beginning of the holiday season that stretched from October’s end to the New Year.

When I finally became a homeowner in the summer of 1997, I felt free to decorate and celebrate with abandon. I dressed up for Halloween to hand out candies and had pumpkins and lights.

And it only became more awesome when Will and I became a couple the following fall and the tradition of building and working the Jaycee Haunted House began.

I was a Corpse Bride long before Tim Burton thought of it. In a tattered white gown with a purple-streaked black wig, skeleton mask and black leggings, I sprayed my exposed arms with white hairspray and slipped skeletal gloves over my hands to slink along the hallways of a pitch dark maze, scaring the bejeezus out of teenagers.

Hand me a chainsaw (defanged, naturally) and I floored them literally. There is nothing like that revving roar to turn people around and create a terrific panic.

By the time Will was too sick to notice Halloween, there was Dee to consider. While our friends reared their kids in the corridors of the construction of the haunted house and had them running about during the running, Dee has always been too .. tender … for that. Her dad’s illness aside, we would have ended that tradition anyway.

So this naturally shifted to fairy and princess costumes and Trick or Treat. Beggar’s Night it was called in Des Moines. An odd tradition of kids telling jokes for treats and the celebration was never held on the 31st. Don’t ask me why. I tried to ascertain the rationale for shifting it to the 30th but never heard the same explanation and as nearly as I could figure it grew out of a mixture of the rabid Christian culture and a misguided notion that teens would be less inclined toward mayhem if it wasn’t the actual Halloween date.

And then we came to Canada.

The first year I suggested decorating the yard as a cemetery, but Rob wasn’t keen even though he’d once endured the scorn of his Bible thumping Kansas neighbors over a fake cemetery he erected in their yard when the older girls were a bit older than Dee.

Shelley, I am told, loved Halloween and dressing up in elaborate costumes. She’s passed this along to both Edie and Mick. This year, for example, Mick designed and sewed costumes based on Alice in Wonderland. And Mick always had multiple costumes a year as they make the rounds of the various to-do’s in the city.

Dee also has a box of costumes that she adds to every year. She is a huge fan of dress up play anyway and I have done nothing to squelch this instinct. Her scariest costume is a ghost number that I picked up at Walmart a few days after Dad died in ’08 and we Trick or Treated old school suburbia with DNOS, BIL, our two and a gaggle of neighborhood kids.

Day of the Dead, however, is not Halloween. Even Halloween is a corruption if original intent counts for anything.

The 7th grade team I worked with in middle school got it into their heads to construct a cooperative unit around Day of the Dead one year. One of our teachers was enamoured of the Hispanic tradition and being a former nun had more affinity to the November 1st Christian observance than the 31st.

At any rate, we weren’t allowed to celebrate Halloween. Our population had a sizable number of extremely wing-nut Christians. One of the local churches actually bordered scarily on “cult”, so my co-worker pushed the Day of the Dead idea, which is ironic because it is more objectionable than costumes and candies on many levels.

I was lukewarm.

First, it’s a tradition that is not symbolic and one really needs to be raised in it to not find it distasteful and/or morbid. North Americans are death fearing to the point that most of us see death as a personal affront that simply should not happen in our modern times. That death is the natural progression and that much of the early death that occurs is due to modern times collateral damage – we simply don’t want to acknowledge.

Second, I loathed dealing with the family trauma that bubbled like toxic sludge just below the surface of most of our students’ lives. Parents who would be skeptical or hostile and require much coddling and cajoling* also factored into my reluctance.

Finally, Day of the Dead is religious. There is no getting around it and we were a public school. Separation of church and state and all that entails. If we weren’t studying the traditions surrounding death in all cultures in addition to Day of the Dead then what we were doing was highly questionable.

But, we did it anyway.

And it was a minor disaster that dredged up emotional muck, angered some parents, offended the über-Christians and was a small joke to a small segment of the students, who insisted on honoring their dead pets.

Traditions that honor the departed are widespread around the world. The more death-fearing a culture, however, the less likely one is to find them. What one notices instead is a fixation on the grisly and horrific.

When I was young, November 1st was the anti-climax. We went to mass. It was boring in comparison to the evening before which meant running the neighborhoods in costume with hordes of other children, trailed by uninterested parents or older siblings. In my family, the dead were considered honored through masses and living our lives to their full potential. They also endured through the wonderful memories passed along through stories.

So here is one for you:

My dad and his siblings had a couple of horses they shared between them. Co-ownership was not unusual. The family was poor and there were five children. For example, they had a single pair of skis that they took turns with out in the pasture until my dad’s oldest brother collided with a pig and broke the poles.

One of the horse’s was a gray mare named Blue. Dad’s youngest brother, who died when he was 39, took Blue one day when he and a neighbor were heading to the creek – probably the one at my now departed as well Great-Uncle’s place down the road. When they arrived and dismounted, my uncle left Blue standing by a tree.

“Aren’t you going to tie him up?” his friend asked.

“Nah,” he replied and continued walking.

The friend ran to catch up, casting a glance back at the horse which appeared to be content and uninterested in wandering off.

“Well, aren’t you afraid she’ll run off?

To which my uncle said, “Blue’s blind. She don’t even know we’ve left.”

There is no record of what the friend thought about having traversed a good mile up and down hilly fields and narrow dirt paths on a blind horse that my uncle barely bothered to “steer”.

A happy and peaceful day of the dead to you and yours.


Just to pick up on yesterday’s topic a bit, my least favorite columnist at the local paper published her latest article on surviving the death of a spouse today. I understand the obsession.

She is only a widow of about six weeks or so and in the beginning it consumes you. You replay those last moments on a continual feed in your brain. It’s not painful in any way that you can explain to someone who has never been through it. It’s not pain at all. It’s an altering of reality that permeates existence to the point where you are not sure if you are part of the real world anymore. Everything is so removed and even for me, someone who often doesn’t feel visible to the world at large, this was eerie.

There are a lot of things about the aftermath of death that are annoying. People want to hug you; even people who know you would rather be peeled like a grape than be embraced by them. People you don’t like, and who are aware of this fact, impose their guilt-ridden amnesia on you as they make their worthless offers of assistance. They try to feed you. A lot. And usually baked goods. You spend a lot of time making other people feel better.

The night of Will’s wake I smiled and hugged and pretended to listen to an awful lot of people who frankly were a drain on my rather limited emotional reserve. And then they retreat, waiting maybe for you to “get over it”? Everyone you remain in contact with treads carefully in word and deed. You want to tell them to save their energy because most of the time you aren’t really paying any attention to them anyway, but you don’t because you know that these small acts of kindness will disappear quickly enough without any help from you at all.

Everyday activities that are actually necessary like cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, paying the bills seem to require Herculean effort. You live off PopTarts and feed your kid lunchables (okay maybe that was just me). You don’t sleep. The house makes noises it never did before, and in a last ditch effort to stave off complete insomnia you leave all the lights in the house on except the one in your bedroom. At some point you start turning them off, mainly because the electric bill is looking scary, until only the hall light is on. I’ll let you know when that one goes out.

You start to worry that possibly the stress has given you early-onset Alzheimer’s (and a veritable medical dictionary of other diseases while your very patient PA reassures, you during office visits that are fast becoming weekly, that you are fine). Every place you go you remember a time when you were there with him too, to the point where you stop frequenting those places and develop new haunts that aren’t so haunted.

And you desperately want to rebuild your life. Start over. I cleaned out closets. Threw things away that I had actually never used (mostly things from his mother so the guilt was minimal) and hauled the rest to the Goodwill. Then there was getting used to my single status. Even though Will hadn’t lived with me or our daughter in fifteen months, I was still married and people treated me as though I was.

Funny thing that ring on your left hand. It is a powerful talisman that confers great status on the wearer. I took it off the day after the wake. I had been wearing both his and mine that whole week but I knew that if I didn’t take it off, I never would. So, now in the eyes of the world I was just another single woman with a child.

Funny, but no one asks me about my daughter’s father when I talk about her. At the graduate seminar last week, a man from Madison chatted me up a bit and very obviously checked out my ring finger when I made mention of my little girl. But he never asked about her dad, even though he mentioned his ex-wife a lot. In our modern world I am a divorcée until proven otherwise, I guess.

The need to begin again becomes almost as palpable as the grief itself. A release from limbo. I don’t really cry. Now and again a song on the radio or something my daughter will say or do will bring tears to my eyes and that awful strangling feeling. I’m not angry. At least not with God or my husband. I don’t spend any time at all asking or wondering why this happened to us though I am annoyed at the time it has stolen. I’m a plane circling, waiting for permission to land and not really certain if I need to be granted the privilege or if I am supposed to plow through a forest and create a landing strip for myself. I’m thinking the latter while preferring the former.