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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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Halloween and Holy Days

For a number of years, Halloween was a chore. I felt pressure to buy decorations, dress up in a ghoulish costume, ooh and aah over neighborhood children who came to the door being cute, and eat whatever candy was left over.

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 an act of violence.

We also do disservice to ourselves, and damage the social structure that holds us together in the time of grief. And 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 walking down the street laughing as serial killers or flesh-eating zombies can spiral us out of the fragile control we’ve been able to patch together.

Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve), All Saints Day and All Souls Day began as a way of remembering and honor our dead. The Mexican Day of the Dead is related to this. We long to make peace with our fear of death and not just flick our nose at it. What we would like is a quiet place to remember the people we loved so that their lives do not completely disappear. Halloween is a good time to do this because it’s the one time of the year in the United States when we actually look at death.


It was the Celtic celebration of Samhain that made me care about this holy day again, because it acknowledges that death is real, that our hearts have been torn apart, and that on this night the veil between our world and the spirit world thins, and we can dimly see and communicate with our dead again.

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 darkness of the massive stone cathedral with gray pillars and walls rising up around me to a vaulted roof. As dusk 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 drift through the cathedral, and thought of Ev and her compassion. In remembering, I felt her draw close:

Languishing wicks. Motes of dust floating above the altar. Long wooden pauses. Night’s hunger. The dead’s empty ashes. Tension held between light and its shadows.

Candles push back the darkness. My breath unknots with half-muttered prayers. Outside, the fog gathers. Even nature lingers this night to remember its dead. How little I see what is real in this world. Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.

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.

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