The tradition of honoring the departed with rituals and sweets exists in almost every culture.
In Mexico, there is Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which is celebrated in conjunction with the Catholic holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day, when prayers and offerings are made to the deceased, and families gather to remember and reconnect with those who have passed on before them.
Halloween, occurring the day before Día de los Muertos, has been combined with the Mexican holiday in certain places, but often fails to focus on the departed while it emphasizes the paranormal (zombies are so in this year). This is not to say that Día de los Muertos doesn’t have its share of the macabre—paintings of dancing skeletons and skulls made of sugar abound! However, this is a befriending and sweetening of death, an acceptance that loss is a part of life and not something to be avoided with anti-aging creams and plastic surgery.
Other U.S. holidays that may have been somber in origin, such as Memorial Day or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, similarly do not remind us of those we have lost or our own mortality, but are usually considered a day to take time off from work.
In the general absence of mourning rituals and holidays that connect all Americans, we may create rituals that gather us together as families and friends, to share memories sad, funny, and poignant, while we share that universal and life-affirming glue, food.
Which days work best for these remembrances? Lacking a national, synchronized holiday, we have personal choices to make. Will it be the anniversary of her death? Or will it be his birthday? How about her favorite holiday? Then again, there are holidays that may take on different meanings, such as Mother’s or Father’s Day.
Sometimes families, friends, and couples will come to a joint decision about the day. Other times, it’s a private, individual celebration. The choices and reasons are many, and what can be a good guide in all of this flexibility is how one feels about a certain day. Memorializing the anniversary of a death may feel right for the first year, and shifting to a birthday afterwards may signify a shift in emphasis from loss and yearning to integration and fond remembrance.
As America is a patchwork quilt of various cultures, this will factor into how one remembers, too. In some cultures, birthdays do not have particular importance, and it will feel more appropriate to remember someone by the day he died, and to notice how feelings and thoughts change from pain to peace over time on this anniversary.
Rituals are similarly created, based on how people would like to reconnect emotionally with the departed. For the Chinese, ancestors are remembered on major holidays with food connected to those holidays (think Thanksgiving turkey, Hanukkah latkes, or Easter ham). It would be just as normal—and satisfying—for Americans to make a favorite dessert, cook a favorite dish, or toast with a favorite drink to honor the memory of someone whom they have lost.
Additionally, having activities can help soothe grief or focus on the continuity of life. Setting aside a plate of food, taking time off of work, sharing funny stories, or telling a picture “We love you and we miss you,” are simple and powerful ways to connect emotionally with the departed, and integrate them into our lives.
The use of special days and rituals can be a great comfort to us. It’s not always about the farewell; sometimes it’s about finding another way to say hello.
© Copyright 2011 by Ivan Chan, MA, MFTi, therapist in Santa Cruz, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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