I’m writing this on October 1, and we should be talking about Halloween, right? My nine-year-old son has decided he wants to dress up as an assassin. Our eleven-year-old is still deliberating. I’m trying to decide if I want to be Prince or Minnie Pearl, and my husband, an attorney who has been summoned for jury duty during the month of October, is trying to figure out how he can dress up as “a grand jury.” (Stay tuned on that one.) We should be pondering Halloween, but the Christmas aisle at Costco is already illuminated with light-up yard décor. As I walk toward the grocery section, I see a young couple inspecting a 6’ tall illuminated Goldendoodle wearing a bright red Santa hat. I maneuver my cart past them, take a deep breath, and silently pray that, just for a time, I can be still with the season we actually find ourselves in before lurching ahead into the Christmas hustle.
On the calendar, October is perched between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, a time to welcome the dark half of the year. The Celts marked the halfway point between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice with Samhain (SAH-win), a festival to celebrate the harvest and light the way for wandering souls looking for the afterlife. Most speculate that, around the 9th century, the church “Christianized” Samhain into what we now know as Allhallowtide: the period between October 31-November 2 when we mark All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day.
Traditionally, this is a time to connect the living with the dead through costumes (so you won’t be confused with a wandering spirit), candles and bonfires (to light the way for wandering souls), and storytelling (to keep our beloveds close in our minds since the veil is so thin). We can tell our “stories” through displaying photos of our loved ones on home altars or on the altars at our churches. As part of the liturgy for All Saints’ Day, we tell a communal story by reading aloud the names of those “saints” in our lives who have crossed over that year. Hearing that communal story of grief told through the listing of those names said out loud, all at once, feels like a profoundly powerful tale to tell together—unique to our community but universal all the same.
Beyond the official liturgies of the church, these three family rituals can help us talk together about the inevitability of loss and grief:
Visit and anoint those who are approaching the veil. Just in the past few weeks, my beloved 92-year-old grandmother has moved into a nursing and rehab facility. Nothing about this transition has come easily for her or for those who love and care for her. When we visited her the first time shortly after she moved in, I gave Peter some lotion and asked her to rub her hands. When I think back on the first times I visited a nursing home or hospital when I was his age, I remember being so shy, but Peter did not hesitate at all to take his great-grandmother’s hands in his and offer her the only thing that we could give to help ease the moment.
Make a family altar. Make a family altar (or an ofrenda) to commemorate those you love who have passed on. Dig out the photos that best capture the light in their eyes, and put them in frames. Place flowers, candles, and even their favorite foods and drinks on the family altar. Take some time to tell stories about your loved lives and the connections you have with them. Earlier this year in February, in the hour after our beloved friend Tallu died, Ben, the boys and I made the altar pictured on our dinner table. Making it was our older son Henry’s idea, and I feel sure he got the idea from watching Coco.
Gather round the screen. So many of the resources on grief and children are about specific losses—for example, the loss of a pet or a grandparent. How can we find more ways to talk with our children about loss more universally? Coco, of course, is an absolutely wonderful film to watch together during this season. Coco can inspire conversations about loved ones who are no longer with us on earth as well as help us learn about the profound rituals of Dia de Muertos that connect us to the liminal time of Allhallowtide.
We are also planning to start watching one of the most viewed television shows in history, The Power of Myth (1988, PBS) featuring conversations between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell. I’m hopeful that learning about heroes and journeys—and how so many of the stories and films that we love (and even the boys’ favorite video games!) depend on timeless, cross-cultural mythic structures. These, too, can help us talk together about the universality of suffering, grief, and loss.
We cannot walk through the inevitable experiences of grief, loss, and mortality equipped only with our intellect. When my children experience grief and loss—when they are confronted by mortality in themselves and in those they love—I do not want them to become unmoored. When suffering and grief inevitably find them, I want them to have access to more than their brains, their credit cards, the liquor cabinet, and numbscrolling. Maybe intentionally developing the rituals of Allhallowtide as a family and as a church will help.