A Different Way to Honor the Dead


We can learn from other cultures how to have different perspectives and attitudes towards loss and grief. Memorializing the deceased in this way seems to honor them yet also see death in an irreverent way.


colorful skull
Day of the Dead Skull

With November 1 and 2 arriving soon, I thought about how differently we handle memorializing the dead in the dominant culture of the United States versus Latin America. They hold celebrations every year called Dia de Los Muertos on the day after we celebrate Halloween. I realize that there are also funerals for individual deceased people in both Anglo and Latin American cultures, but we in the USA don’t have the same kind of mass celebration for our dead loved ones.

The celebration is most strongly associated with Mexico, although other Latin American countries celebrate it as well. It is a combination of the celebration that the Aztecs have and the Catholic celebrations of All Souls Day. Offerings are given to the souls of deceased family members, and the occasion is very festive with music and feasting. The celebrants believe that the deceased would be offended by sadness and somber behavior, so instead, they have a lively gathering in the deceased’s honor.
In the USA it seems more somber and staid when a loved one passes, and while we have fanciful notions of ghosts coming back from the dead at Halloween, the actual celebration of a loved one’s passing is usually a very sad funeral wherein people speak mournfully about the person. There are wakes, which in Celtic cultures are meant to be a time to view the body of the deceased before they are buried and I wonder how we would respond to someone having a party in honor of the deceased or going to the person’s graveyard with a big picnic and speaking to the dead as if they were still alive?

It seems very different from Anglo culture, and no one culture is right or wrong. It is just a different perspective and approach. I think it is healthy to have a balance between allowing oneself to be sad and upset about the death, and celebrating the person’s life exuberantly and even with humor and a bit of irreverence. The sculptures of skeletons playing the violin and dancing say to me that some people are able to look at death in a whimsical, humorous way and not take it too seriously. The candy skulls and painting one’s face like a skeleton suggest to me a link between the living and the dead. We are part of a continuum of living and growing older and dying. We may be here on earth for a time and then pass on to some other state of being, but (depending on your spiritual beliefs), we leave a legacy behind, whether actual human beings or the work and impact we have on others. Others are affected by our passing and want to acknowledge that they knew us, that we meant something to us. Similarly, we want to do that for others.

It’s healthy to acknowledge that we miss people who are no longer able to be touched, heard, embraced. But the essence of our experience of them lives on in our hearts and souls. We carry them around with us, and some people even say they speak to their deceased loved one when they need comfort, advice or guidance. I think it is part of the tapestry of acceptance that we weave when people come into and leave from our lives. The tapestry has some bright threads and some darker colors, and we get to enjoy the totality of who that person was to us by acknowledging the spectrum of feelings that accompany his/her passing.

I’m not sure how you will celebrate this Halloween and the days after, but I am in awe of the diverse ways that we humans honor the dead. I think we can learn from all of them and be enriched by the different traditions.

Feliz Dia de Los Muertos!

 

Getting curious instead of furious


Quite often when I work with couples, and also other family dyads, I notice that people get themselves wound up and heated about common misunderstandings. Once the people involved allow themselves to calm down and talk about what was bothering them, they find out that they were misinterpreting each other, adding projections from their own past, or misunderstanding what the other person intended to say. A lot of the problems stem from not just what is said, but how things are said (e.g., in a sharp, aggressive tone of voice or with threatening or disrespectful gestures). This is where the interpretations and projections from the past go wild, usually. It’s very hard to stay centered and rational when you’re being flooded with emotional responses that have as much to do with an abusive past, as with what is happening now.

This is why I recommend first that people have a weekly check-in as a couple. Sit down without any distractions (social media, phones, television, computer, kids) and talk as calmly as you can about one thing you liked that your partner did, and one thing you didn’t like. Take turns (even use an egg timer to ensure that both get a chance to speak). Then reflect back what you heard your partner say. Be open and humble enough to be corrected. If you’re doing the correcting, don’t shame the person (e.g., “You’re so stupid, I can’t believe that’s what you thought I said!”). Instead, say, “No, that’s not what I intended to say; this is….” A book that is very helpful to couples (and any) communication is Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, which helps people be responsible for their own emotional reactions and not blame and shame each other.

The second thing I recommend is that if you find yourself in an argument and you just can’t fathom where this person is coming from, take a moment, breathe deeply, and then tell them, “I don’t think I understand what you are saying/intending. Help me understand, please.” I know, easier said than done, right? But it can make a world of difference between having a horrible night fighting for hours, or helping the other person clarify what they want to communicate. Each of you has the right to be heard, understood and validated. Each of you has a unique perspective that is equally valid to the other’s. Don’t lose sight of that when you have disagreements. There may be a perfectly valid reason the person is saying or doing what they are right now; you just don’t have the magic decoder ring to understand it. Even when they explain it to you, it still may not make sense, but stick with it and you will have a better chance at “getting” your beloved’s point of view.

Third, I suggest that both partners keep in mind, “what is the end game?” Is it to be right and lord that over the other person like a kid in the school yard, or to remain happily together for a long time? Is what you are defending, or fighting about, important enough to risk alienating the other person and having bitterness and resentment between you? Is it something that you might laugh about later, saying “I can’t believe we fought about that! How silly!” I ask people who get angry to rate how important this matter you’re getting upset about is, on a scale of 1-10. If you can honestly say it’s above a five, ask yourself why that’s important to you. If it’s below a five, consider letting it go unless it’s emblematic of a greater sense of disrespect and pain in the relationship.

With Valentine’s Day coming up next month, I thought I might arm those of you in relationships with a few pointers to get through that holiday. It has its own set of expectations and cultural meanings that sometimes get in the way of really enjoying each other. If you think that your relationship is in trouble and could use more help, please call me at 661-233-6771.

Don’t let fear boss you around


What prevents you from keeping resolutions? Fear of the unknown is often a main culprit. Don’t let it win this year.


The main holidays have passed by and there’s only one left, the holiday that makes people hopeful and determined to change their lives: New Years Day! I’m not sure why this particular day was chosen as the beginning of the year, but it has and we often make promises to ourselves and others about how we’re going to change for the upcoming year. Commonly, the promises involve change in behavior — doing more of or less of something. But when it comes time to keeping these promises, we sometimes give up when it gets hard to keep the promise. At that point, it’s not really a promise that we’ve made at all; just a mild suggestion to ourselves. It can be discouraging if we keep having resolutions and then not following through with them, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t change that pattern from this point forward.

One of the things that keeps people from making changes in their lives, even if we know that the change is necessary and will improve our lives drastically, is FEAR. It’s not necessarily rational that we fear positive change, but we do anyway. For example, if we want to lose weight, we have to give up some things in order to get the desired result. It’s not so much about giving up particular foods themselves that invokes fear, but relinquishing the status quo. Even though the status quo may be uncomfortable and unhealthy, it is familiar. And we like keeping our equilibrium, even if it hurts us.

How many times have you made a suggestion to a friend, saying something like “Hey, why not giving up doing drugs/drinking too much/going out with mean people/etc?” only to have them say, “Yeah, but…”? We are afraid to give up what we know because we like to be in control of things. And what could be more out of control than trying something new? We don’t know in advance how it will be to weigh less, date someone kinder to us, go to a party sober, or exercise on a regular basis. But when you think about it, how much of life can really be accurately predicted anyway? Perhaps it’s not control that we’re clinging to, but the illusion of control.

This year I invite you to consider what will happen if you don’t make the positive changes you promise yourself. How will you feel if you keep doing what you’ve been doing all along? Is that picture scarier or less scary as what you’re proposing to change? How much do you want the results of the changes, and how much do you want the results of not changing? Play a movie of each outcome in your head, with you as the star. Which feels better to you? Which feels worse? What are you willing to do or experience in order to have the “better” movie? I hope that you can use this idea to get very clear about what you want and make sure that your actions are influenced by realistic factors. Fear of death, disease and pain make sense to me; fear of the unknown is based on a nebulous construct of our own imaginations. We make the unknown scarier than it has to be. Don’t let fear push you around this year.

Everyday heroes


Lately I have been watching documentaries about luminary, courageous, amazing people like Nelson Mandela, Miriam Makeba, and Mahatma Gandhi. They all possessed strength and amazing grit to stand in the face of injustice and fight on anyway. Equally amazing is that they didn’t let their hardships well, harden them. They were still loving, forgiving people even when they had a chance for vengeance and retaliation. On a smaller scale, I think many people display courage and grit, as well as love and forgiveness, in their challenges. Many are unsung in their valiant efforts to deal with oppression, poverty, and many other social ills. They are heroic nonetheless.

Similarly, I think we can all agree that the people who have served our country and given their lives, limbs, and health for our country are brave and praiseworthy. As we approach Veteran’s Day, I want to give thanks and praise to not only the people who serve our country in the military, but also the people who have courage and strength in the face of everyday challenges that might feel like a battle to them.

For some people with depression, just to get out of bed in the morning is an act of defiance against the disease that insidiously aims to claim their wellness. For people with PTSD and Panic Disorder, leaving the house can take tremendous courage to face the jarring, threatening stimuli outside their cozy sanctuaries. Folks with chronic illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia can also have difficulty even moving their bodies, and yet they persist in getting up, doing what needs to be done, and marching on through the pain and fatigue. Even to reveal one’s true self to a loved one and face possible rejection, which might seem small to many, can be terrifying and mystifying to couples in an embattled relationship, or families with a history of dysfunction. All these acts of valor go unsung, and yet we do them because something inside us says, “I must go on. I cannot let this problem conquer me; I deserve a better life and so do my children and their children, etc.” So for all those unsung heroes, please know that someone appreciates the struggles you face, and how brave you are to persist in the face of opposition.