On November 1st falls a celebration with deep Mexican roots, and strong Latin American and Mexican traditions. Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a day where families traditionally clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones. They reflect on the life they led, the memories they shared, and build an altar to comfort and to welcome the spirits of loved ones back to this world for the evening. It is a deeply spiritual celebration of life which is often confused for “Mexican Halloween” or a scary holiday.
When Leo died, my husband Zach and I knew almost immediately that we would bury him at La Vista Memorial Park, so that he could be in the company of nine other family members from Zach’s side of the family. La Vista is a privately owned cemetery dating back to the mid 1800’s with a Mexican influence due to its location in National City, CA, a predominantly Hispanic community. Leo is one-quarter Mexican and I wanted to be able to celebrate and honor that part of his heritage in addition to his French Canadian, Squamish (Canadian natives near Vancouver), and English roots.
We have built an altar honoring Leo for the past three years on Dia de Los Muertos, and each year brings a different type of comfort and healing.
The first year we celebrated Leo and my dad, who both passed unexpectedly and within two months of one another. I was able to acknowledge so many things that hurt my heart on that altar and I was able to share our story with so many people who came by to enjoy the festival and see the altars.
The second year, we not only honored Leo and my dad, but Zach’s grandma who had recently passed away, the babies stillborn and miscarried of our dear friends and community members, and the babies of an organization called Garden of Innocence who provides dignified burials for abandoned babies.
This year, we dedicated our altar just to Leo.
As I was conceptualizing what I would contribute to this altar, I reflected on the two previous years when I put a baby bottle of milk on the altar. It broke my heart to think that I would be placing a bottle on the altar every year for the rest of my life. It felt so unfair and brought me so much sadness. I knew right then that it wasn’t right…I needed to come up with a different idea.
Like a bolt of lightning, it hit me. I’m constantly filled with “what if’s” and “should’ve”, “would’ve”, “could’ve”. I weep for the moments I never got to share with Leo, the things I never got to teach him, the adventures we didn’t get to go on, the foods he would have loved and those he would have spit back out.
I pulled myself together and bravely shared my idea with Zach. “What if,” I stammered, trying to hold back tears,”what if we offer Leo the foods that he would be eating if he were still alive today?” And then I lost it as I explained to Zach how sad I am that we never got to give him pizza, tell him he can’t have any more candy, we won’t ever get to have a beer with him, or make him a favorite meal when he is feeling down or has something to celebrate. And by acknowledging how old he would be when we do our altar, we would still be able to do these things with him, in our own way.
Zach loved the idea and it sat well within our hearts.
So this year, we honored our would-be 2 1/2 year old boy Leo. We gave him citrus fruit, apple juice, strawberries (his sister’s favorite), animal crackers, tamales, and candy; we filled the altar with toys and books, a toothbrush since he would have had teeth by now, and so much more. I got to honor him in a way that brought healing and comfort to my aching, grieving heart.
This celebration is something we share with our daughters, family, and friends. I hope that my rainbow Zoe feels connected to the brother she never met through this celebration each year and through the conversations we have about our sweet boy.
What cultural or family traditions do you have to honor your angel babies? Do you celebrate how old they would be?