When the dead walk among us

OfrendaIt’s just past Halloween, and we’ve finished All Souls Day on the Christian calendar, a time to commemorate our departed ones. Now Mexico is in the midst of Day of the Dead celebrations, one of two — or more — days for remembering and mourning those we loved and lost. I am so grateful for these traditions and their associated rituals, many of which are truly poetic and extremely beautiful, because after more than a decade of writing about grief, I am still stunned by how most people don’t want to acknowledge that death even exists.

Those who observe these days may believe the veil is thinner now between planes; that this season creates a special opening between the living and departed. Who am I to say? I’ve spent the last several months trying to become open to any possibilities. For those of us who have spent years reckoning with our dead — in our daily lives and on the page — like I have with my big brother, I know that they can hang out indefinitely if we want them to.

David, who died suddenly 14 years ago, is always with me. It’s a certainty that was immediate — something I actually said out loud without thinking about it when I first got the news — but also a feeling I’ve fostered with great intention. My desire — even strident will — has kept his memory alive continuously simply by spending time thinking about him and telling stories about him.

I don’t remember David just on special occasions like this (or his birthday and death anniversary), though today I have lit a Catholic candle with a little guardian angel image and set up a little makeshift ofrenda with his photos, a bunch of paper marigolds, and skull-emblazoned imagery, borrowing kind of mix-and-match from other traditions. I hope that isn’t offending any spirits. It just felt nice to do, and I’ve mused over the Day of the Dead for a long time.

It could sound morbid or obsessive that I keep up remembering him in such an unrelenting way. I find it comforting. It’s makes me feel like I didn’t entirely lose him; that our relationship, though drastically changed, lives on.

Something wonderful grief advisors tend to recommend to those who are struggling with what to say after someone has died is, “What was their name? Tell me about them.” It allows a bereaved person to let their dead be alive for a minute more, if only through conversation. Sharing a memory of their face or that funny thing they always did can help a little.

Don’t we all hope to be remembered?

That the loss of a beloved person (or animal) is an experience we culturally have assumed is something “to get over” or “let go of” disallows — even pathologizes —the idea that a meaningful connection doesn’t necessarily end when a life does.

If we are lucky to live long enough, we will all experience the death of others in our spheres. This rite, exquisitely painful as it is, provides perspective about living unequal to anything else. It reminds us to value the time we are given and to treasure our beloveds while they are here. I have gained so much getting to know my brother better in his aftermath, and from holding close other family members and friends who have gone ahead of me.

I invite my dead to walk with me all year long. I miss them, after all, and they teach me so much, so why would I forgo welcoming a visit, just like those who put out bread and water, say prayers, or send messages through the ether?

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