Exploring Mictlán: The Enigmatic Kingdom of the Day of the Dead
Day of the Dead: When Our Heart Is Broken by the Departure of a Loved One
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Death is considered a great human tragedy, at once universal and deeply personal. In fact, the main source of human suffering is knowing that we are finite. Being aware that we will die, many individuals cling to higher beliefs, where the soul – that intangible entity – is considered immortal.
If death is part of life itself, why do we try to deny it? Would accepting it somehow alleviate suffering? Why isn’t the naturalness of death more broadly talked about and taught?
Face Death Without Pain
From a very young age the idea of death weighed heavy on me. Maybe that is because death was part of my life from the time I was three years old when my father died accidentally.
I grew up understanding that death is a tragedy, that the dead must be mourned, and that their absence leaves a unfillable void for life. Everything around death seemed to me part of a tragic cult, even the clothing we were required to wear was tragic, as were the songs and the sermons. But it wasn’t just me who grew up with these experiences and beliefs, almost all of us who were born in Western culture did.
As we grow, certain beliefs from our environment become established in our thoughts, and we end up adopting the beliefs of our parents, religion, culture and friends. We assume other people’s truths as our own truth, and subsconsciuly conclude that when someone dies it is terrible.
Maybe there is room for another truth, one’s own truth.
The only memory I have of the day my father died is of many people around me crying; and I, in my three-year-old mind, wondering why everyone was crying and I wasn’t. I look back now and see it differently – that perhaps we could all face death like that three-year-old girl: without pain.
Day of the Dead: A Great Way to See Death
I had the opportunity to live in Mexico and discovered the Day of the Dead tradition there. From my perspective, it seems Mexicans have the special ability to celebrate everything, even death. One way this celebration is manifested is in Catrinas, which are skeletons decorated with traditional dress, bright colors, flowers and a big smile on their faces.
The tradition includes creating an altar for the dead or ofrenda, which holds glasses of tequila, typical food, flowers, candles and photos of the departed loved ones, representing a true honoring of the deceased. This Mexican custom of celebrating the Day of the Dead is a great way to see death. And, it is why, every November 1st, I usually post this popular Mexican phrase on my social networks: Cheers, for those who left and for those who are left alive!
Grief: Accepting Reality
Just because death is a natural part of life itself does not mean that it is not difficult to face, especially when it comes to the death of a loved one.
The mourning of a death and any mourning in general – because we can mourn the breakup of a love relationship also – is an inevitable process. There are no magic potions to eliminate the pain we feel. It hurts to accept that it’s over, it hurts to know that we will never see that person again, and it also hurts to accept that a part of us is leaving.
The pain will pass, and we will finally learn to live without our loved one. And along the way we will learn to be a new self without that person in our life; because otherwise, we would be condemned to live in nostalgia.
Buddhists say that “acceptance is largely the key to peace of mind.” That’s why when we resist something we can’t change, we get frustrated; and frustration leads to feeling anger, and anger leads us to face life with bitterness.
During this period of acceptance we need support from the people who love us, who are present for us, who hug us, accompany us and respect our moments of pain.
Reflection: Learning to Live with Pain
Once we accept reality, it is necessary to make room for reflection. Importantly, acceptance does not mean stopping to feel; it means that we can live with what happened even if it hurts.
Sadness is a great door to reflection and invites us to navigate within ourselves. After the initial dark disorientation of loss, self-reflection can guide us like a light to land at a new safe port: to evolve.
In order to be able to reflect, we need to be in good physical and spiritual shape. During this period, we must take charge of ourselves and not move through daily life on autopilot. We must find our well-being starting with physical health: eating well and sleeping well. Trying to exercise will also help us clear our minds and produce serotonin, the hormone of happiness.
Self-knowledge: Look Inside
We cannot take care of what we do not know and this period of acute expansion of self-knowledge invites us to observe without judgment: a very complex task when our inner voices are insistent.
Our process will involve silencing those voices, which are usually not even ours but those of others. When we do so, we allow for clearer observation and more careful listening to ourselves. Sometimes it helps to ask ourselves guiding questions such as: Why am I feeling this? Why does this make me angry? Why do I tell myself this or that?
At this stage, I invite you to be present within, not with what is outside of us. As Carl Jung said,
“He who looks outward dreams; he who looks inward awakens.”
This undertaking of self-knowing will allow us to open ourselves to exploring new things, to know ourselves thoroughly in order to live that new life we want, and not cling to the past.
Finally, I know that you work in the hospitality industry and have frequent contact with alcohol, but you should avoid consuming alcohol: it is grief’s biggest enemy because it is a depressive. Likewise, try to avoid guilty thoughts that may appear. Remember that we do not have the power to change the past.
Continuing to live our lives, remembering our loved ones and keeping them in our hearts is the best way to honor the love we had for them.