Creating Altars to Help Process Loss.
When I was 10 years old my grandfather, Frank, suddenly passed away. It was the first death I experienced of someone close to me. I was in shock. I couldn’t comprehend the scope of what death meant.
My grandfather’s funeral was very formal in a large Presbyterian church in Oklahoma.
All the grandkids were told to wear nice Easter clothes from a few months earlier. I am not sure if we wore those particular clothes because they were colorful or because they were our nicest clothes that fit. I wore a pastel dress with little flowers.
I remember being very uncomfortable at the funeral. It was scary to see my relatives so very sad. I didn’t really understand what was going on. After the funeral all the grandkids were invited to my grandmother’s neighbor’s house.
All the grownups grieved together, remembered, shared their love and their pain. The kids were told to play, as if it was an ordinary day. After the funeral was over and time had passed, my grandfather’s picture still hung on the walls in our home.
His name was still spoken and some stories told, but I had a sense that my family was accepting his death and slowly moving on. It was hard for me to understand that he was never coming back. As an adult, I feel like I have never been able to fully process the loss.
I have found much comfort and beauty in the practice of creating an altar in the Day of the Dead tradition. Day of the Dead or Dias de los Muertos happens on November 1st and 2nd in Mexico. During this time, it is believed that the spirits of loved ones who have passed return for a celebration. In this way, the departed are never far away.
To honor the spirits upon their return, families create very elaborate altars for their loved ones who have passed. The altar includes traditional elements like marigolds (to guide the spirit by their scent), a glass of water (for the spirits to quench their thirst upon their arrival), an arch (to symbolize the gateway into this world) and much more.
Altars also include personal items, photographs, favorite foods of the departed, books, toys—all things that were enjoyed by the person while they were living. I think this is a very beautiful tradition.
Each year, I create an altar for Day of the Dead. I find that it gives me the opportunity to take the time to remember. For me, remembrance is composed of joy, sorrow, laughter, longing and gratitude. I feel that creating an altar is an important outlet for my grieving process. Over the years, I have created altars to honor the memories of relatives, friends and even pets.
This year I created an altar for my grandmother Maida. She passed last December at the age of 96. Though I feel an ache in my heart, I can’t help but smile as I remember her daily Diet Coke, her love of jokes, her special relationship with her cat, her love of travel and some of her final words to me: “All that really matters in life is to love and be loved.” As I set the special items on the altar, I feel at peace. She is watching. And her words seem to be the essence of Day of the Dead.
I can’t believe that it’s been 35 years since her husband (and my grandfather), Frank, passed. I am now the mother or two wonderful boys. The death of their great grandmother was my boys first experience with a close loved one passing. I believe the altar created for my grandmother will be comforting for us all. The traditions of Day of the Dead will help to keep my grandmother’s spirit close and the memories alive.
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Author: Laura Lambrecht
Editor: Travis May
Photos: Provide by Author
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