“I invite you to consider that to inhibit, delay, convert or avoid grief is to condemn yourself to a living death. Living fully requires that you feel fully. It means being completely one with what you are experiencing.”*
-Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D.
Growing up, I remember Halloween as a marker of a joyful holiday season about to begin. Once the leaves started to turn, embarking upon Halloween was met with excitement (and candy) and was followed by Thanksgiving and Christmas (and more candy). It was innocent excitement of being someone else for a day, using imagination and thinking outside the norm. For a shy, awkward kid like me, dressing up and boldly asking neighbors for candy was liberating. Now, watching my children get excited about dressing up (which is actually a daily occurrence in my home) and candy and pumpkins, I’m brought back to my own childhood excitement…with a caveat. I’ve been a little unsettled about Halloween ever since my husband passed.
First, our daughter was born two days before Halloween, and with death and life so strong at my own doorstep, celebrating the holiday that year was out of the question both practically and emotionally. The first Halloween after Phil passed was a warm, autumn evening and the streets were filled with children and neighborly hospitality. Seeing my twin boys trick or treat for the first time was exciting and their laughter was contagious, but I my stomach turned a little when we passed houses with skeletons and tombstones in their front yards. I could handle the cute costumes, but I couldn’t, and can’t, get past the zombies, ghosts, skeletons and ghouls. Having been face to face with death and dying, I can’t understand why anyone would want to pretend to be dead, or the living dead for that matter. So, tiptoeing carefully up to this coming Halloween, I was hesitant if we should even celebrate. However, I came to my own conclusions recently and decided to follow far more closely the holiday celebrated on the next day, Dia de los Muertes. The Mexican holiday drives home the permission to honor and remember loved ones who have passed even years after the loss rather than focusing on the dark and sinister side of death and the supernatural that Halloween is rooted in.
I recently attended a workshop called “The Paradoxes of Mourning” taught by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., founder of The Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. He has devoted more than 20 years to helping the bereaved and teaching caregivers for the bereaved. I learned many insights that I treasure and keep close to my heart, but the one truth I learned that lit something deep inside was Dr. Wolfelt’s ability to explain the difference between grief and mourning. Grief: our inward experience of loss. Mourning: the outward expression of loss, honoring both the person who has died, as well as honoring all of the wrapped up emotions, thoughts and memories we survivors are left with. This stuck with me so much and I realized a pinnacle reality in my own grief journey—I haven’t mourned at all. Believe me, I have been, and still am swimming in grief, being so alone and stuck inside the swirling waves of it that I was not really given permission, nor did I know how to give myself permission to mourn. To be honest, I really didn’t know the difference between grief and mourning until that workshop.
It’s coming up on two years since my husband’s death and the death of our future together, and I have just now begun to scratch the surface of mourning. So, my point about all the Halloween stuff is this: In order for me to walk out of the land of the living dead (which is how I’ve been living this past year and a half) and into the land of the living, it’s incredibly important for me to be intentional with my mourning, to schedule my mourning (another post explaining these concepts later) and to invite others into the process; you, the readers. Shutting down and living in the dark with my grief is a scary and dangerous place to be—I don’t want to live in the darkness of “Halloween” anymore. So this Halloween, I start with the mourning journey. I start with giving light and honor to the man I loved and lost. And as I walk the dark streets with ghouls, ghosts and the living dead rubbing shoulders with me on October 31, I remember that I can overcome the darkness, the terrifying shadows of unaddressed grief, trauma not dealt with, and the lurking ghoul that is cancer with light, and in turn, these apparitions have no place in that light.
This Halloween, while my kids are reveling in candy euphoria, I will quietly be honoring the life that brought me so many blessings, remembering the pain and sorrow the absence of that life that has brought, and the light that bridges the gap between the two.
*Wolfelt, Alan. Ph. D. Living in the shadow of the ghosts of grief: Step into the light. Fort Collins, CO: Companion Press, 2007. Print.