Day of the Dead: Lessons learned

Day of the Dead, Petaluma, Ca.
Day of the Dead, Petaluma, Ca. 2014

When I was nine years old my grandmother died. This, in and of itself, would have been distressing enough since she and I were very close. To complicate matters, I nearly died with her.

I was staying at my grandmother’s house for the weekend when I gradually noticed that I had a headache. When I went out to the store on an errand I discovered that my headache disappeared only to return when I got back. I remember that my grandmother wasn’t feeling well either and had mentioned that her blood pressure was high that day. Thinking that I was simply ill, I assumed that if I were to go to sleep that night my headache would be gone by morning. That was not the case, however, and I woke to find my headache was much worse.

Alarmed, I expressed distress to my grandmother, who good-naturedly dismissed my conviction that “something is wrong in this house”. She allowed me to call my mother repeatedly. I pleaded with her to do something or to take me home, letting her know that I was worried about the situation at my grandmother’s house. Finally, in exasperation, my mother brought me home that day.

Later that night my grandmother died from carbon monoxide poisoning; the furnace had not been properly vented. She died in her sleep while my uncle, to whom I was also very close, came very near to death himself.

How do you grieve when you are so young? Her death had a profound effect on me. Not only did I feel loss and guilt (guilt over the fact that I had escaped her fate) but also was confronted with the fear of my own possible death. I did the best I could; it helped that I was young, had limited understanding and could be distracted by school and playmates.

I have thought about her often over the years. She remains a powerful figure in my life; she gave me unconditional love when I most needed it and her death taught me to trust my instincts even when others don’t. There is a photo of her on my nightstand. I feel she does watch over me in some way.

At this time during Day of the Dead festivities, we remember those who have left us. Each death of someone close to us shows us something about ourselves; we grieve to restore the fullness of life, attempting to fill the vacancy they leave. But there is always something missing that cannot be replaced. I wouldn’t have it any other way.