Experiencing el Día de Muertos in Mexico has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember, and in November 2017 I was incredibly fortunate to be in Sayulita for this day. Sayulita is a beautiful town that somehow seems not to have lost its rural, Mexican heart despite the influx of expats that flock to the area. I was absolutely charmed by the heart of the people there, and would love to return someday.
I have always been so enchanted by the cultures around death in our world. In the United States we try so desperately to fight death that we sometimes ruin the precious time a loved one has left. Research shows that physicians who are comfortable talking about death improve their patients outcomes and quality of life (and dying), yet many physicians are so uncomfortable with the topic that they can not broach the subject. Even in a terminally ill patient, information like options outside of treatment and expected timelines are sometimes not discussed, therefore the patient is unable to make a real plan around their own death and how they want to die. This robs the patient of power over their outcome – their last, precious time. If we as patients have autonomous rights over anything, it seems that having decision making access to all the available options about our death should be respected. Death is as much a part of life as birth. We have to get better at this. Additionally, when someone we love dies – typically we do our best to celebrate their life and then move forward, move past the death. It’s a linear grieving process, and we are later surprised when the feeling of missing that person surfaces – and if it happens in the presence of others we feel we have to apologize for our feelings.
I have always admired cultures where death is more accepted as part of life, and loved ones who have passed on continue to be held close in hearts. Of course nowhere is that more present than in the Mexican celebration of el Día de Muertos. The festival itself lasted two nights, but the preparations were going on for at least a week ahead of time. In every shop they were making tissue marigolds, and the color was piling up everywhere. On November 1st, there was a special night for the children. There were special offerings, and children everywhere. It was joyous. Everywhere I looked, children were gathered with their friends talking about their loved ones who had passed away, their faces glowing in the candle light as they poured over the altars bringing candy, toys, and flowers. The next night, on November 2nd there were still so many children present, and the celebration was for the adults who had died. So much music and light, people dressed as calacas, face painting, and the celebration went all night long. Sometime after midnight people left the town square and walked to the cemetery which was light by thousands of candles and filled with music until the morning hours. It was such an amazing feeling to be immersed in, this feeling of joy and community, this normalizing and celebrating of death.
Death is normal. We all experience death in our communities, our families, and eventually we all will die. For myself, I would wish that people who love me don’t try to grieve in a linear way, moving past the memories, but instead hold me close and allow these memories to fill them with joy rather than pain. We are not guaranteed a single moment in this beautiful life. It seems fit to celebrate whatever we are given.