“The gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31 and the spirits of children can rejoin their families for 24 hours.”
This year my Day of the Dead altar has two pictures of Ana. In one, she is fourteen and playing her guitar. She’s dressed for a show wearing an interpretation of seventies fashion — bootleg jeans and a flowing blouse. Her hair is blown straight and parted down the middle.
The other photo is from one of her last performances. The picture is cropped to highlight her face and shoulders. She wears blue shadow on her downcast eyes and a black corset with thin straps. This was from the Rocky Horror show. Ana got to perform several songs as Dr. Frank-N-Furter dressed in full drag.
I place items around the photos — a lovely piece of raw celestite, her favorite stone, an origami crane she folded and gave me as a gift on one long-ago day, and candles (always candles).
She adored ornate boxes, so I include one from her best friend Evi who’d brought me the box after Ana died. She’d filled it with beach-smooth stones collected near the Baltic Sea in Germany. I carefully line up the stones, hoping Ana will somehow see this gift from her friend.
I add some bright orange marigolds from her Aunt Amy’s garden, a few of my own folded cranes, and more crystals and tumbled stones. I don’t know which stones were hers and which ones are mine anymore.
I place a guitar pick beside a tiny piece of hematite shaped like a crescent moon and add a soapstone candle holder shaped like a heart. I’d bought the candle holder during the first few weeks of early grief. Back then, my brain hadn’t registered the fact that Ana didn’t need my gifts anymore. It still hurts to look at it sometimes.
On November 1, I will add a bowl of fresh strawberries, Ana’s favorite food, to complete my Day of the Dead ofrenda — the shrine I’ve erected for my daughter so that her spirit can come say hello.
I didn’t know about The Day of the Dead until after Ana died. I grew up a secular Jew in a community that was dominated by Irish and Italian Catholic families.
We stood out for the menorah in our window in December when the other houses were adorned with Christmas decorations.
We weren’t religious at all. We didn’t belong to a synagogue, barely thought about god and the devil, and never spoke of death. Our family rituals were cultural rather than religious — we gathered for Rosh Hashanah, lit candles and spun dreidels for Chanukah, and buried our dead as quickly as possible, as custom demanded.
Beyond that, nothing.
I didn’t pay much attention to my soul or the souls of other people. Death was foreign and it made me uncomfortable. I didn’t dwell too long on who’d I’d lost (both my grandmothers, a cousin, my uncle, and my grandfathers) except in the stories I told about them to my children. I missed them, but what could I do? Life must go on, after all. I dealt with death by not dealing with it, until it came to my house and got comfortable.
The marigolds on Ana’s altar will be wilted and dry in two weeks, but they’ll have to suffice. It’s difficult to find fresh marigolds in the Northeast U.S. in November.
Next year, I will plant marigolds in my own garden and keep some indoors, in a pot. I hope to have live ones waiting for her on November 1.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I learned about The Day of the Dead from the Disney movie Coco, which was released on November 22, 2017, exactly eight months (to the day) after Ana died.
I have always loved Pixar movies. When Coco was released, my younger daughter was 13 and Ana was gone, but I sat down to watch it anyway (secretly, alone, on my phone in my bedroom when no one was home).
I wept through most of the movie, amazed at how the tradition of Día de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, normalized death, but also how it enabled the living to stay connected to their loved ones.
I didn’t know anything about Día de los Muertos before watching Coco. I’d always thought it was a version of Halloween celebrated in Mexico. I was familiar with some of the symbolism — sugar skulls and dancing skeletons — but I didn’t understand the rituals inherent in the holiday.
It’s nothing like Halloween, a holiday where we hide from and fear the dead, where death is monstrous and evil, even unnatural.
Día de los Muertos is a celebration. It’s an acceptance of death as part of the natural cycle of life. It’s a welcoming of our loved ones’ souls, if only briefly, into the world of the living. It is a way to collectively remember those we’ve lost.
For a bereaved parent, this connection is everything.
I realize that Disney movies don’t typically reflect the traditions, history, and events of people and cultures with complete accuracy (understatement), so I’ve been reading about Día de los Muertos on my own, trying to learn everything I can about the holiday.
The Day of the Dead is actually two days. It begins on October 31 at midnight and ends on November 2, at midnight.
This year, I learned that November 1 is dedicated to honoring dead children, while November 2 is reserved for adults. Per History.com:
“According to tradition, the gates of heaven are opened at midnight on October 31 and the spirits of children can rejoin their families for 24 hours.”
This is remarkable, this yearly honoring of the dead that gives me permission to grieve for, remember, and honor Ana indefinitely.
It’s a way for me to continue connecting with Ana, to celebrate her life, and to imagine her spirit existing now, not frozen in time as a 15-year-old girl who will never change or grow.
There’s more about Día de los Muertos that I need to learn and more that I want to do. I am imagining a time when my altar will grow to include all the people I’ve lost. I’m visualizing a new family ritual that includes a celebration (in a post-pandemic world) that allows all the people who loved Ana to gather so that we can honor her life together and with joy.
I place candles on Ana’s altar to light her way back to me.
I place a bowl on Ana’s altar which I will fill with food to nourish her.
I decorate the altar with her Aunt Amy’s marigolds to connect the border between the spirit world — Ana’s world — and mine, inviting her to visit me for the day. By doing these things, I hope to reinforce my bond with the child I lost.
The dead can be celebrated. I know that now. I’ll always be connected to Ana and grateful for her life. This year, I’m happy to have fresh marigolds, folded cranes, tumbled stones, and a ritual that makes bearing this loss a bit easier.