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.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Halloween and Holy Days

Halloween doesn’t do much for me. There is pressure to buy decorations, dress up in ghoulish costumes, eat lots of candy, and ooh and aah over neighborhood children who come to the door being cute. All 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 seven months after Evelyn died. Late in the afternoon, I went to Grace 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 move through the cathedral, and remembered my wife. I thought of her love and compassion, and how she was drifting away no matter what I did to keep her close.

When did we get off Halloween’s spiritual boat to gorge in self-indulgence?

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

We also do disservice to ourselves, and damage the fabric that holds us together in the time of grief. If our loved one died this year, then death is probably too close and too raw for us to even think about poking fun at 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 fragile control we’ve been able to patch together.

We need the mindfulness of the holiday back.

Many religions and cultures have ceremonies at this time of year to address the growing darkness of the physical world, the coming of winter, and the death of plants and animals in the northern hemisphere. They invite us to enter the sacred space where life and death meet.

In the Christian Church, Halloween, or All Hallow's Eve, on October 31, is the start of three days of religious observances. It’s not about great pumpkins or pirates 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.

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, that our hearts are torn apart for a long time, that the spirit world is real, and that hope, somehow, still endures.

Whatever faith we follow, and whether or not we follow any faith, we can use this time 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 reside there. Or lighting candles to guide our dead home and bring us hope. We need time by ourselves to remember the people we’ve loved so that their lives do not end with their deaths. Underneath all the Halloween decorations and activities, we feel a longing to make peace with our fear of death, not just flick our nose at it.

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, to guide us home.

May we find a quiet place this week where we can remember, honor and breathe.

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