Re-embracing Halloween After a Loss

The candy you buy at the drugstore may now be just for you, the lights turned off for trick-or-treaters on Halloween. You may want to go through the neighborhood late at night and tear down all the ghastly tombstone decorations and leave notes reminding neighbors that death is not “fun.” The cheap hanging ghosts may feel like mockeries of your own constant search for signs of spirit in butterflies, rainbows, or in my case, pennies. And costume contests are probably way down on your list of priorities.

After experiencing the death of a loved one, Halloween may feel too raw to celebrate. Perhaps you are grieving the loss of the little sweetheart you took trick-or-treating, or maybe you feel like nurses’ costumes are no longer so cute after spending long nights beside a hospital bed with an ill spouse or parent. Yet despite the silly ways that most people celebrate Halloween, there is a common yearning to look inward and to the spirit world as the days grow shorter and nature goes to sleep for winter. As the light fades outside there is a call to embrace our homes with light, with jack-o-lanterns, and later in the season Christmas lights. Actively remembering your loved ones helps bring the light within to warm you through the cold season. With the approaching winter holidays perhaps bringing dread and stress, Halloween can be a time solely to remember your loved one and celebrate the memories and life you shared together.

Many cultures honor and remember the dead in the days and weeks around Halloween, with Día de los Muertos in Latin American countries, All Souls’ Day with many Christian communities, or Jewish holidays of harvest and Yom Kippur. Even Halloween, the “ugly American” of remembrance holidays, originally had a more sacred meaning, and became more of a play day for children only in recent decades.

Judy’s daughter, Stacy, died of an overdose at the age of 23. Stacy always loved decorating the house for Halloween, and even into her teen years would stay home with her mom to pass out candy to neighborhood trick-or-treaters. After her death, Judy avoided anything associated with Halloween. She would see a cute witch decoration in the grocery store and break down in tears missing Stacy. Judy felt there was no point in celebrating Halloween anymore. She called in sick to work the first year after Stacy’s death on Halloween, and after crying and looking at photos of Stacy, she suddenly felt inspired to plant some bulbs she’d been storing in her garage. She went into the yard and immediately felt energized, working with the earth and planting. She’d forgotten about them by Spring, and was surprised when she went outside on Stacy’s birthday and found the whole yard filled with blooming irises, Stacy’s favorite flower. She now spends every Halloween remembering Stacy as she plants, and it reminds her that beauty continues despite her loss. You too can reclaim the original intention of the season by participating in or creating your own ritual of memory.

Your new ritual can be as simple as:

  • Light a candle for your loved one.
  • Read aloud a favorite poem, or passage from a book. Even reenact a scene from your loved one’s favorite movie with family and friends.
  • Cook your loved one’s favorite dish to share with friends.
  • Play a game or do an activity your loved one enjoyed. Sometimes after a loss families stop playing together. Halloween can be a time to resume activities you used to enjoy with your loved one, and embrace the sadness and warmth.
  • Gather with supportive people at your loved one’s grave to leave flowers, candy, or small tokens. On Día de los Muertos, families host elaborate picnics at cemeteries, finding community in simply caring for the final resting place of loved ones.

Remember that your ritual can be utterly simple or an elaborate celebration with friends and family. The important thing is to remember your loved one in a way that feels healing to you. Something is reproduced in your memory through these rituals that transcends the ordinary experience of existence. Keeping the person in our thoughts in a conscious and meaningful way brings him or her closer to us, and can be very healing.

Gloria Horsley

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Dr. Gloria Horsley is an internationally known grief expert, psychotherapist, and bereaved parent. She started "Open to Hope" to help the millions in the world with grief. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Clinical Nurse Specialist, and has worked in the field of family therapy for over 20 years. Dr. Horsley hosts the syndicated internet radio show, The Grief Blog which is one of the top ranked shows on Health Voice America. She serves the Compassionate Friends in a number of roles including as a Board of Directors, chapter leader, workshop facilitator, and frequently serves as media spokesperson. Dr. Horsley is often called on to present seminars throughout the country. She has made appearances on numerous television and radio programs including "The Today Show," "Montel Williams," and "Sallie Jessie Raphael." In addition, she has authored a number of articles and written several books including Teen Grief Relief with Dr. Heidi Horlsey, and The In-Law Survival Guide.

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