Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Saturday, November 1, 2014

Halloween and Holy Days

As it’s observed today, Halloween doesn’t do much for me.

There is pressure to buy things, dress up in ghoulish costumes, eat lots of candy, and coo and ahh over neighborhood children that come to the door being cute. What I want is a quiet place where I can spend time in the presence of my dead.

The Halloween I cherish the most is the one that came six months after Evelyn died. Late in the afternoon of All Hallows Eve, I went to Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco. Only two people were there, kneeling by the rows of red votives burning up front.

I sat on a wooden pew in the middle of the gray stone cathedral with pillars and walls rising up to a vaulted roof. Later, as darkness came, a small group of people gathered in a side chapel to sing evensong. I watched the candles burn in the darkness, listened to the music, and remembered my beloved. I thought of her love and compassion, and how she was drifting away no matter what I did to keep her close. I felt lost without her.

Where did we get off the Spiritual Boat to gorge in Self-Indulgence?

In our society’s push to make money out of death, in our costumed depictions of violent and gory ways to die, in our attempts to downplay the hard reality of grief, we do disservice to our dead, especially if they died because of acts of violence.

We also do disservice to ourselves, to the delicate fabric that holds us together in the time of grief. And if our loved one died this year, then death is too close and too raw for us to even think about making fun of it. At a time when we can barely tolerate any mention of death, seeing dozens of people laughing as serial killers and flesh-eating zombies can spiral us out of the control we’ve been able to patch together.

We need the holy of the holiday back.

Many religions and cultures have ceremonies at this time of year to address the growing darkness of the world, the coming of winter, and the death of the growing season in the northern hemisphere. But I’m not concerned about the formal religious ceremonies. I’m talking about entering the sacred space where life and death meet.

In the Christian Church, Halloween on October 31 is the start of three days of religious observances. It’s not about hookers, great pumpkins, or getting into sword fights with leg bones. On November 1, Christians honor the saints of the faith. On November 2, they honor family and friends who have died.

I grew up Christian, but it was the Celtic celebration of Samhain that made me care about this holiday again, because it acknowledges that death is real, that people we love die, and our hearts are torn apart.

Whatever faith we follow, and whether or not we follow any faith, we can use this weekend to remember our dead in ways that nurture us.

We can create our own rituals. This can be as simple as taking a walk through woods that our loved ones cherished. Or going to the cemetery and talking with the ancestors who are there. Or lighting candles and sitting with others in front of photos of family and friends who have died, sipping tea, and telling each other stories about them. We need time to remember the people we’ve loved so that their lives do not end with their deaths.

Underneath all the Halloween decorations and activities, there is a longing in each of us to make peace with the fear of death, not just flick our nose at it. This weekend is perhaps the one time in the entire year that we are given an opening to talk to each other about death, and most of us just don’t.

Every Halloween I return to Grace Cathedral, if only in my mind, and watch the candles flicker in the darkness inside that gray stone building. The candles burn for the dead. They also burn for the living. They burn to guide the dead home and bring us hope.

May we each find a quiet place this weekend to remember, honor, and cherish the people we have come to love.

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