Honoring Your Children’s Loved Ones on Day of the Dead

Honoring Your Children’s Loved Ones on Day of the Dead

This month many Americans are celebrating both Halloween and Day of the Dead. The latter is a holiday whose joyous rituals — commemorated in the recent children’s film “Coco” — involves face-painting, building private altars (ofrendas) to honor the departed, visiting cemeteries, and singing, praying, and talking about friends and family who have died.

If you’re not familiar with the holiday, which originated in Mexico and is celebrated here from October 28 to November 1, here are some ways your family can participate:

  1. Make an altar to honor your loved ones. Even young children may have become acquainted with death after the loss of a beloved relative or pet. Consider building a small altar with them out of a cardboard box and tissue paper, then surround it with traditional marigolds, food and beverages your loved ones enjoyed, along with photos and other mementos of them.
    2) Share your memories of the departed. Kids may enjoy hearing and contributing their own stories. “Children unfamiliar with this cultural tradition may have questions about the holiday,” according to an article from the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement. “This can be an opportunity to start important conversations about what it means and how it feels when someone you care about has died.”
    3) Participate in a Day of the Dead ritual. Lots of cities have sites for group altars or marches in costume that you can join in.

In a powerful essay in the Washington Post, John Paul Brammer explains that his Mexican American family had never celebrated Day of the Dead until his abuela (grandmother) died. He and his family now travel to Mexico each year, he says, to mourn the loss of loved ones who’ve died and to laugh and celebrate the memories they’ve left behind:

“That’s why Día de Muertos is such an important occasion,” Brammer writes. “It holds that dying and living are not opposites but rather two parts of one process, with just a breath in between. Through this lens, death isn’t an antagonist, a horrifying thing we must look away from. Death is festooned with flowers, candles and brightly colored papel picado because Día de Muertos wants us to look squarely at the way things end. It wants us to accept it, laugh at it and revere it. The only thing it asks us to not do is ignore it.

“I’ve come to understand that this holiday isn’t about romanticizing the past or about wishing we could bring those who’ve died back to life. Día de Muertos instead asks us to consider that we exist in conversation with the people who came before us and the people who will come after us. It says the border between life and death — and every border we encounter in between — is porous. It asserts the joyful fluidity of being alive.”