I think a lot about loss. Past loss, future loss; past pain, future pain. The delicacy of existence, of life. The only absolute for each and every one of us: eventual death.
There are times it nearly consumes me — it creates anxiety even in moments I am attempting to enjoy something as benign and pleasurable as petting my dog. When I’m sinking my fingers into her silky coat, my brain struggles between the magical oxytocin rush I get from the adoring look in her eyes and the desperate knowledge that my time with this amazing creature is limited.
People spend a lot of time talking and writing about mindfulness. They also speak of gratitude, especially this month. I tell myself to appreciate what is right in front of me and let that be enough — the dog is here and she is wonderful — but it is not an easy skill for me to master with my brain catapulting back and forth in time, both remembering and foreseeing sadness.
I think a lot about loss because I’ve had quite a few deaths in my life — more than some, fewer than others. Some so close to me they continue to sting for a long time, a couple so bad I can’t easily talk about them, and one — losing my big brother — that changed me forever. Enough overall to be a little damaged and a teensy bit obsessed.
Part of my compulsion is not wanting to let go. People in the U.S. tend to avoid death and dying as if they aren’t the true equalizers, though these are the only things certain to touch us all. We are taught — implicitly and explicitly — to move on, “get over it,” find closure, forget, to push the dead away, as if lingering with them is somehow unhealthy.
I’m not Mexican, and I would hate for anyone to think I am in the business of cultural appropriation, but I love the recent holiday, Dia de los Muertos. First of all, it isn’t morbid; it’s a celebration of life. Second, it acknowledges that it is OK to carry our dead — that in remembering and honoring them, we keep them with us.
Dia de los Muertos is really two days: November 1 for children who have died (technically Dia de los Innnocents); November 2 for adults. There is some relationship with the Catholic All Saints Day and All Souls Day, though elements are distinctly different.
On these days, the souls of the dead are welcomed back, maybe even beckoned, with their favorite treats. Families or individuals build ofrendas, altars that include some combination of photos, flowers, candles, crosses, paper cutouts, calaveras — candies made of sugar and shaped like skulls — and the favorite food and drink of the dearly departed. There is this notion of some kind of reunion, which I find very alluring.
The idea that a public holiday is declared exclusively for this is amazing to me. Our Memorial Day merely honors those lost in military service (not to suggest that is mere, only that there are so many others to remember). And then, the event is somber. Mexicans throw parties instead because they believe the dead would not want us to wallow in our misery.
I was touched to find an ofrenda last week set up in the library atrium at the college where I work. It seemed to be there in a general way rather than for a specific person or persons. I paused there for a few minutes to admire the pretty, colorful display with its many carefully arranges treasures. I paused to think about my brother, someone I want always to keep close to me.
I paused to think, sadly, about the many people lost in the past few weeks that we should be remembering right now as a community, our collective losses being as great as they are. But I appreciated the opportunity to stop and recognize their lives, their contributions, to honor the ways they lit up the world with their individual gifts, personalities, relationships, talents.
I like to think all the souls did return for a day or two to remind us to find the joy and light, appreciate the beauty, eat deliciously, bask in the glow of candlelight. To love and be loved, to embrace the dead because they lived, to reconsider our precious existence in the way of the quote by Gabriel García Márquez, “No llores porque ya se terminó, sonríe porque sucedió.”
Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.