Day of the Dead may provide insights into grieving

Part Two of a three-part series on how grief support looks to traditions like Day of the Dead to help people learn new coping skills.

Read Part One “Day of the Dead is a celebration of life”

Grief SupportBy Denise Brown  MA-ATR, Art Therapist/Grief Support Specialist and Wanda Kelsey-Mendez, Communications Manager with Kansas City Hospice & Palliative Care

In Part One, we discussed The Day of the Dead, or El Día de Los Muertos, a Mexican holiday that honors the dead.  You don’t need to be Latino to celebrate Day of the Dead. But perhaps you can find inspiration from this colorful tradition. We discussed how the movie “Coco” makes some of the concepts of Day of the Dead approachable for both children and adults.

Let’s continue exploring the traditions while discussing how they might provide a different perspective for anyone grieving a loved one.

In Part One, we suggested you watch Disney’s 2017 animated feature Coco.

It provides a very accessible way for both children and adults to explore the concepts of the Day of the Dead. In the movie the land of death is a colorful. happy place. And it has a bridge connecting it to the land of the living. The only thing the dead fear is the “final death.” That’s the moment when the last memory of you fades from the living. The traditions of the Day of the Dead focus on delaying this moment.

Disney’s Coco won two Academy Awards in 2017 for Animated Feature and Original Song, “Remember Me.” Hear the song on YouTube.

What might a grieving person learn from Coco and the traditions of the Day of the Dead?

A relationship doesn’t end just because someone has died

 “The first chapter of grieving is really recognizing that someone is gone from this world, and your relationship with them is changing” rather than ending, says Tracee Dunblazier, a grief counselor based in Los Angeles. Whether you believe it’s possible to communicate with the dead, or you merely believe in keeping them alive through memories, recognize that maintaining a relationship can be very healing. “When you think of death as final, you’re looking from a specific sliver of a perspective that does not show the whole story,” Dunblazier says.

Coco explores continued healing in grief, developing a continued relationship with the deceased, which this movie demonstrates vividly. Most cultures have developed belief systems about where souls go and what afterlife is like. No matter one’s belief system, this movie offers an opportunity for ongoing discussion. The movie also shows families using the art of storytelling as a strategy for coping with loss. Telling stories about deceased loved ones, seems to help everyone, no matter the age.

grief support and day of the deadDeath is a part of life

“I’ve always thought of life and death as opposites. However, Day of the Dead celebrates death as a part of life, rather than the end of it. And recognizing that life and death go hand-in-hand can ease the grieving process,” says Kriss Kevorkian, PhD, an expert on grief.

“Day of the Dead connects life and death in a way that, generally speaking, Americans don’t often do,” says Kevorkian. People who celebrate it realize that their loved ones are still present in their lives, even if they aren’t physically here. “You’re not taught to believe that once your loved one dies that’s it.” By normalizing death, the grieving process also becomes normalized and less of something to fear.

Did you notice that the adults don’t shield the children from death in Coco? It’s important to avoid hiding death from them and teaching about death as a natural part of life. In this way, perhaps children might develop increased acceptance, and less fear of death.

Because Day of the Dead is an annual event, the ongoing ritual recognizes death as a natural aspect of the life cycle.

grief supportGrief doesn’t follow a strict timeline

“When someone you love dies, everyone expects you to struggle—but only for a little while. The problem, of course, is that people don’t heal on schedule, and sometimes it takes months or even years to ‘move on,’ especially after someone passes unexpectedly. This idea is known as complicated grief, and Western cultures usually view it as something to treat (perhaps with therapy and/or antidepressants).” –Kelly Burch

“Cultures that celebrate Day of the Dead, however, don’t try to force a sense of closure. Having a holiday that acknowledges the presence of the dead can make complicated grief easier to address, particularly on November 1, when the spirits are thought to be nearby. Believing that your loved ones can hear and understand you on this holiday means that you have the chance to say anything that was left unsaid before they died,” says Merrie Haskins, a counselor and psychotherapist based in Minnesota.

Recipe for Pan de Muerto – click image

Memorials can bring smiles as well as tears

Appreciate the idea of “celebration” when remembering departed loved ones. Celebration doesn’t exclude sadness or other difficult feelings, but perhaps gives us another option to focus on when remembering.

In our culture, death and funerals are very solemn. “We don’t usually have a celebration with levity, happiness, song, and dance,” says Shoshana Ungerleider, MD. She is chair of the End Well Symposium, an organization that focuses on quality end-of-life care.

Including others in a day of celebration helps you to feel less alone in your grief. Many people have family and friends around at a time of loss. But yearly events like Day of the Dead promote continued bonds with both the living and the dead.

National Geographic: Top Ten Places for Day of the Dead – click image

When you stop fearing death your life can improve

Everyone dies, but many people are too afraid to think about it. “In America, we often shy away from talking about death, loss, and grief. I see many gravely sick people in the hospital who have never considered what they want at the end of life,” said Shoshana Ungerleider, MD, chair of the End Well Symposium, an organization that focuses on quality end-of-life care. “As a result, their final days can be stressful for them as well as their families, because everyone is struggling to make decisions that align with their beliefs while simultaneously dealing with the grief of imminent loss.”

Day of the Dead can help people consider death and plan for what they want at the end of life. “By accepting and discussing openly that death is a part of life, you make sure to receive the care you want.”

Read Part Three: “Day of the Dead can inspire us to cope with grief”

We’re here to help

Kansas City Hospice, Solace House and our Passages program are great sources for grief support. We have a grief newsletter, Journeys that is available by email and online. Sign up for email. You can also subscribe to this blog for a variety of topics. Not sure what support you may need? Just give us a call at 816.363.2600.

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