Today is Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, in Mexico. While it coincides with Hallowe’en, it is not about fright and mischief, but about showing love and respect for deceased family members.
The festival dates back several thousand years to the Aztec, Toltec, Nuatl and other Indigenous peoples of Mexico, who viewed death as a natural phase of life, and whose dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit. During Dia de Muertos, a mash-up of ancient rites and Catholic All Saints Day celebrations, the spirits of the departed temporarily return to the Earth.
It’s a joyful reunion between living and dead, marked by singing, dancing, and celebrating in the streets at all hours of the day and night. Brightly coloured skeleton costumes, artful face-painting to resemble skulls, and shells and noisemakers all heighten the excitement.
In households, public spaces, and gravesites, Mexican people create altars, called ofrendas, intended to welcome the dead with offerings of water and their favourite foods, as well as family photos, marigolds and candles.
I’m Canadian, not Mexican, but I’m inspired by the idea of honouring our departed loved ones, even if they’ve died by suicide. In so doing, that fatal event is a painful and difficult part of their ongoing journey, but it need not define them or our relationship with them. In allowing ourselves to continue to show them our love and respect, we are better able to see them in their totality – as a vital part of our families, of our communities, of our lives.
How do we do this? Not having well-defined and commonly understood customs and rituals to guide us, we have to come up with our own. We can plan a meal with friends and family, we can create our own ofrenda of photos and beloved objects that we associate with the departed beloved, or we can participate in an activity that he or she enjoyed – making music, hiking, playing bridge… it doesn’t matter what it is!
Journal-writing has been my go-to to sustain my relationship with my brother Steve, right from the moment he died. Since I’m on my own, away from anyone who knew my brother, I’m going to write him an unsent letter. It was our main way of staying in touch when he was alive, and I have written him many unsent letters since his death.
If that’s something that you would like to try and you’re not quite sure how to begin, you might start off with a phrase like, “I never told you that..” or “I want you to know that…” Lighting a candle and reading the letter aloud to him/her is a simple but lovely way to keep him/her close on this blessed Day of the Dead.