The day of the Dead

My parents. I celebrate them both.

My parents. I celebrate them both.

On the Day of the Dead, we go into the dark knowing we are part of something huge, magnificent, ancient.   ~Anne Lamott


I have a thing about death.

I think about it a lot, but my thoughts aren’t morbid or ghoulish; they’re about angels and spirits and mystery. 

I wasn’t always like this. At one point in my life, I just went through my very average, very vanilla day-to-day, not giving much thought to anything beyond what was right before my eyes.

That all changed in 2005, when I was given a crash course in Death 101. My fifth baby and my mother died within two weeks of each other. An experience like that forces you to think about things more deeply. It makes you start to ask some weighty questions: “Where do we go when we die?” “Are my loved ones still around me?” or “Is this all there is?”

When I was told at seven months pregnant that the baby I was carrying had a condition “incompatible with life” I had to meet death head on. Every time my little girl moved inside me, I had to confront what I was told was inevitable. My husband and I also had to prepare our children- the oldest of whom was eleven at the time and the youngest, five.  We didn’t have any experience talking about death, so we did the only thing we knew how to do: we told the truth. We presented the facts and then talked about it all freely. And we followed the lead of our children; we talked when they wanted to and let life roll along and sweep us away when they didn’t.  At one point, I remember marveling with my oldest son at how odd it was that the only thing we can absolutely be 100% certain about in life (i.e., death), we typically fear. The ultimate irony!

So we talked about that fear. We put it right out there in the open and like most fears, once we shined some light on it, it didn’t look the same.

We learned many beautiful lessons that November of 2005, but the most incredible was that death was not scary. It was soft and loving and gentle. There was even some relief mixed in there.  Of course there was sadness, but it was coupled with deep, exquisite peace. Our family’s experience that year added a whole new dimension to this person that I call Me, and I am profoundly grateful for the gift of it. I hope that my children feel the same way, or will, when they are old enough to be introspective.

We still talk easily about the baby that came to us and stayed only until her work here on earth was done- ten short days. She is always included in the count of our children (final tally: 7), and I’ve often heard her referred to as “my sister that died” if it comes up in my kid’s conversations with friends (when it does, I try to discreetly check the friend’s reaction to such a blatant descriptor. Most young children easily let the comment float by, while most adults-at the very least- widen their eyes in shock).

We don’t talk about death so much in this culture. It almost seems impolite. But if we don’t talk about it, how are we ever going to dispel the underlying fear?

What would life be like if we had no fear of death? This question is really worth taking a moment or two to ponder. Would we live a little more freely? Would we spend more time in exhilaration and less in worry and despair? It was reported that Apple founder Steve Jobs’ last words were,“Oh, wow. Oh, wow. Oh, wow!”

What would this world be like if we all believed that “Oh, wow!” was where we were headed?

“Oh, Wow” doesn’t sound too scary to me. Of course, we can’t know what Mr. Jobs was actually referring to, but it just feels nice to think that moving onto to the other side is so indescribably amazing that our here-and-now self can only mutter, “Oh, wow!” over and over again.

Similar stories have been recorded since the beginning of history, so I know that I am not alone in my death fascination. This curiosity of mine has led me to some beliefs that I find soothing-and fundamentally essential-if I am going to continue to live this uncertain existence. I like believing that crossing to the other side is so magnificent that our earthly minds cannot begin to comprehend the glory of it. It comforts me to think that those that have passed are still around me somehow or that when we die, everyone that we have ever loved will be there waiting for us, cheering us on as we enter the spectacular space of Oh, Wow. These beliefs help me to loosen my grip and let those that I love go a bit, just a tiny bit, more easily.

For thousands of years, people have believed that on November 1, All Souls Day (or on it’s eve, October 31st), the veil between the living and dead is at its thinnest point. The “Feast of the Dead” was celebrated in Celtic countries by leaving food offerings on altars and doorsteps for the wandering dead. In Mexico, the Day of the Dead celebrations take place on November 1st and 2nd, and the emphasis is on celebrating and honoring the lives of the deceased, rather than fearing evil or dark spirits.

My mother decided to head to the other side of the veil on November 2nd. She struggled for over ten years with dementia, so I was thrilled for her. I love that she chose that day- what a great time to go! I start honoring my Mom’s passing on All Soul’s Eve. Now, instead of just begrudgingly handing out Halloween candy to the hundreds of children walking our street, I also light a candle and join people all over the world in remembering those that have moved on. IMG_4497

When there is a break in the stream of trick-or-treaters at my door, I privately savor a mini-Snickers (my Mom’s favorite), close my eyes and connect.  I think about the woman who made my Halloween costumes by hand, greeted me with my favorite milkshake after my swimming lessons and randomly showed up at my college just to take me to lunch.

And then, the rustle of the leaves bring me back to the present, and more kids approach, more candy goes into buckets, pillowcases, mouths.

After a few, insane hours of “the best day EVER” (just walk up to a house and they give you candy? Definitely Heaven on earth!), I will usher my sugar-crazed zombies to bed and prepare for rest myself. The last step will be blowing out the candle. Before I do, I will close my eyes, remember my beautiful mother and my sweet baby Ava, and I will thank them for showing us the beauty in death.


November 19, 2005
(photo by Anna Stockwell)

Your body is away from me

But there is a window open from my heart to yours

From this window, like the moon I keep sending news

secretly.   ~ Rumi 



I’m livin’ in my head
Too much life in my veins
Forgetting all of the time
We’re always in motion with angels   ~from “Just like you”   John Mellencamp