• Christina Ketcham

Catharsis Through Culturally Celebrating the Dead

Updated: Nov 3, 2018


Photo by Joelle Jacob

I was visiting my hometown in El Salvador this past week for the sole purpose of celebrating my Salvadoran grandmother’s 93rd birthday in a celebration befitting the occasion. There was joy, cake, and a marimba – we could not ask for a better day. The following morning, I very privately celebrated my American grandmother’s death day. Eleven years have passed and I swear on that specific day my body feels sorrow before my brain even remembers why it is sad.


Conveniently, both of the aforementioned events happen as October makes its transition into November – a very meaning-laden time for Latinos and Tucsonans. With the switch from Halloween to Dia de Todos los Santos/Dia de los Muertos (depending on origin) to Tucson’s All Soul’s Procession this upcoming weekend, it is clearly a time symbolic of big change. Within this context, the most notable of these changes is the transition between life and death. That sounds grim, but I would like to argue that what really makes this time period special and exemplifies the resilience of humanity, is that multiple cultures have chosen to celebrate this transition instead of running from it. This has allowed those that came before us to metaphorically breathe with us for whichever of the holidays you choose to be a part of. Some would perhaps call this living with ghosts and movies, like Coco, have given us a way to see this in a friendly and jovial light. I prefer to look at it as a cathartic experience in which honoring our loved ones simultaneously gives us a single moment to forgive ourselves for the pain we might still feel.


Though my Latin roots are close to my heart, I have never spent the holiday in El Salvador so I have much preferred the All Soul’s Procession. It is there that Latin traditions are mixed with Tucson's love of artistry, resulting in a procession of over 150,000 participants (according to its website) paying tribute to the dead. I love the way it makes Tucson come alive with communal memory and creativity. Raw emotion can be seen in almost every elaborate outfit and it is clear that it came from thoughtful consideration of who their loved one was and what they represented in that person's life. It honestly hurts a little not to be a part of it this year as I have new names and tributes to add to my costume. Albeit unintentional, this kind of celebration provokes real introspection about one's own values and past. Even though this introspection can be painful, giving ourselves a chance every year to experience it can be a potent life check in which one reflects on questions like: Have I moved forward? What was it about that person that made me love them? How can I bring that into my everyday life without reliving the pain of their absence?


I recognize that being a part of these communities has made me more willing to accept grief than others and I was fortunate enough to have a professor in college that made us all look deep within ourselves to our grief. She encouraged us to feel it completely and naturally and I am thankful for these tools. Not everyone has been taught how to give space to their pain. Instead, some have been encouraged to “move on” and get back to the “real world” too soon. Expressing lingering pain annually can be considered a weakness instead of a strength and, unfortunately, the benefits of this kind of expression are lost. The struggle to be the person they were before loss turns to shame and depression which is often experienced alone. As a community, our penchant to compare ourselves and our feelings to those of others is one of the most damaging offenses to our psyches, feelings of self-worth and our paths to wellness. Sadly, social media has made avoiding this tendency of comparison has become more and more difficult.


If you happen to be reading this blog and are feeling alone in your grief or afraid you are not healing "fast enough," I urge you to reach out. If not to us at Sereno (though we are 100% here for you), then to your friends, family or a healing practice in your community. Santa Barbara has a plethora of resources and even Dia de los Muertos events (some of which I have included below). It is my hope that they can help you understand that there is no normal in grief and that honoring your needs is the first step in finding peace with whatever tragedy has occurred to make you feel this way.


Dia de Los Muertos Events

* Adelante Charter School's Dia de los Muertos Event - November 4th, 11am-4pm at Pershing Park

* 2018 Dia de los Muertos Celebration - November 2nd, 5:30pm - 8:30pm at McDermott-Crockett Mortuary


Organizations that run local Support Groups

* Visiting Nurse & Hospice Care

* Santa Barbara Hospice

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All photography on site is owned and created by Christina Ketcham