Day of the Dead is a celebration of life

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

Join us this year for a VIRTUAL Day of the Dead!

How to make sugar skulls – click image

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

Halloween approaches and with it a Latino tradition little understood in our culture. The Day of the Dead, or El Día de Los Muertos, is a Latinix holiday that honors the dead. From a grief support point of view, it honors the living experience of grief.

It’s natural to follow our family customs and cultural traditions in grief and mourning when a loved one dies. But what do we know about how and why these traditions began? Would it be helpful or at least interesting to learn about other cultures than our own? Have you ever been curious about the similarities and differences?

All cultures have developed ways to respond to losses. They have belief systems around death, grief responses, who should attend mourning ceremonies, special days or dates unique to culture. Beliefs are just some of the areas where you might find cultural differences. 

Beliefs and rituals can be a source of comfort at a time of loss. These rituals are a helpful way for people to process and express their grief.  The rituals also provide a way for the community to support the bereaved. You don’t need to be Latino to celebrate Day of the Dead. But perhaps you can find inspiration from this colorful tradition.

Celebrating life

Most people celebrate Day of the Dead on November 1. In some communities it begins the evening of October 31 and lasts until November 2. It began as a combination of indigenous traditions and Catholic observances. It is not the Mexican Halloween.  Rather, it’s an ongoing ritual that embraces death as a natural part of the life cycle.

“Assured that the dead would be insulted by mourning or sadness, Día de los Muertos celebrates the lives of the deceased with food, drink, parties, and activities the dead enjoyed in life. Día de los Muertos recognizes death as a natural part of the human experience, a continuum with birth, childhood, and growing up to become a contributing member of the community. On Día de los Muertos, the dead are also a part of the community, awakened from their eternal sleep to share celebrations with their loved ones.” –National Geographic

“Story is always at the heart of Día de los Muertos celebrations. Family and friends write poems, share anecdotes, or even mocking epitaphs. Through laughter and joy, the symbols presented in this shared tradition honor the life of loved ones passed and even what the loved one loved about life. Today, Day of the Dead events are becoming community events beyond Mexico borders as a way to share heritage, culture and of course, honor the deceased loved ones of all ages.“  – Kelly Burch

Opening a conversation about death

To understand this tradition, just watch last year’s animated feature, “Coco.” 

Coco and grief supportIn 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.

“The movie helps start the discussion about death. This is a difficult topic for parents to address particularly with younger kids. Coco describes death as a natural continuation of life that can’t be avoided. Unlike other books and films depicting death as dark and scary Coco shows it as colorful and mostly cheery.” –Margalit Francus 

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

Grief therapists have begun to embrace Day of the Dead

Valerie Epstein-Johnson, an art therapist and counselor, struggled to cope with the grief she experienced with the death of her mother. “I had no real cultural or family rituals, beyond the funeral, to contain and share my mourning and grief with others,” stated Epstein-Johnson. Then she discovered Day of the Dead and was struck by the unique way the tradition uses the arts and a celebratory approach to commemorating the dead. “Through my art therapy…and my discovery of the ideas and rituals that are part of the Day of the Dead, I found ways to integrate my loss into my life story, begin to heal the pain of grief, create a template for a lifelong process of grieving my mother, and, ultimately, face the existential reality of loss itself.” 

grief and day of the deadChildren can embrace a celebration that is not scary

At the Sharing Place, a Salt Lake City-based children’s grief support program, parents and children have expanded their horizons and worked with the local Chamber of Commerce to create an inclusive experience.

“Utah people think the holiday is creepy because of the skeletons and symbols and celebrating death, so it is not widely understood, but Day of the Dead celebrates people who die. It’s not a sad day, it’s not a day of mourning, but it is a day to celebrate them and think about all the things that they were.”

 “Ken Cruff, a beneficiary of Sharing Place, said as interesting as the skull painting sounds, his two young daughters always think about their mother when they see the skulls they decorated a couple of years ago. It gets them to talk about their mother who passed away from cancer, and that means it is helping them to realize that death is a part of life, Cruff said.” Read more about the Sharing Place and Day of the Dead 

Join us again for Part Two on Wednesday, October 31. “Day of the Dead may provide insights into grieving”

Read Part Two:  “Day of the Dead may provide insights into grieving”

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.

Sobre Nosotros

Grief Support



  1. Frances on October 29, 2018 at 1:41 pm

    This is a beautiful tradition and I agree, the movie Coco is a great introduction. The cousin who reintroduced Day of the Dead in our family would always say “Remember that next year we will all be together again. Maybe some of us here and others on the ofrenda, but always together. Family is forever.”

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