The Day of the Dead, Grief Therapy, and Me

Happy Day of the Dead!  Though my own heritage is not Mexican, I have loved this Mexican holiday, celebrated on November 1st and 2nd, for as long as I have known it exists.  These days, The Day of the Dead has become popular to the point that many outside Mexico are aware of and even celebrate the holiday.  The familiar, colorful skeleton imagery can be found on decorations sold at stores like Target and most American cities have festivals and parades to honor the day.   For me, Dia de Los Muertos is something I have tried to incorporate into my own process of grieving and remembrance of people I have lost in my life and I have taken inspiration from its rituals in my work with grief therapy clients.  


What is The Day of the Dead?                 

El Día de Los Muertos or the Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that honors the dead, and, from a therapeutic point of view, honors the living experience of grief.  There are many traditions devoted to death and grief across cultures, yet the Day of the Dead is distinctive in its ritualistic use of all the arts and its celebratory approach to commemorating the dead.  On this day, rituals are performed to welcome animas, the spirits of the deceased, back to their family homes so that the living might spend a few brief hours at their side, and vice versa. 

This festival ritualizes an understanding of death as a natural occurrence that goes hand in hand with life.  It conceives of the dead as souls with the capacity to influence the lives of the living in positive and negative ways, souls that seek the attention of their loved ones through offerings of earthly things they once enjoyed one time each year (Carmichael & Sayer, 1991).  Melding Catholic ritual and cosmology, pre-conquest Spanish traditions, and ancient Meso-American Indian practices, El Día de Muertos is a multi-cultural festival that has evolved over hundreds of years to accommodate a range of spiritual beliefs including secular humanistic ideas.  Over the course of this evolution, it has grown into a unique approach to death and grief that stands in stark contrast to the increasingly impersonal approach taken by much of the industrialized world.

Why I observe Dia de Los Muertos 

When my mother died in 1999, I struggled to cope with the grief I experienced.  I had no real cultural or family rituals, beyond the funeral, to contain and share my mourning and grief with others.  Though there are certainly mourning rituals to be found in my Jewish heritage, I was not observant and my family had not practiced these traditions with me in the past.  When my mom died she left me and my brother in our nuclear family.  I tried to talk to people, journal, and read about grief, but it was not enough.  There were so many things I felt I needed to share and figure out, but no one in my life seemed able to listen and support me to the extent I knew I needed. 

I tried therapy with the social worker at the assisted living facility where my mom had lived for the last six months of her life, and while somewhat helpful, it lacked the soul I longed for.  I was going through an existential crisis only major loss can prompt and I needed a person and expressive tools that could acknowledge and support me through that.  Eventually I found a therapist who not only understood the depth of the loss of a parent but offered experiential ways to work through and honor such a loss.  I found an Expressive Therapist who used art, sand tray work, and other active methods in therapy to help her clients through grief and other deeply personal experiences. 

Through my art therapy with Maryland expressive therapist and “creative aging” expert, Wendy Miller, (, and my discovery of the ideas and rituals that are part of the Day of the Dead, I found ways to integrate my loss into my life story, begin to heal the pain of grief, create a template for a lifelong process of grieving my mother, and, ultimately, face the existential reality of loss itself. 

It is all too easy to avoid that last one.  Both our human propensity to escape difficult feelings and our western culture promote denial of loss and death, so when we do eventually lose people close to us and face death ourselves, we are caught unawares— frightened and unprepared.  When the fog of fresh grief began to lift for me, I turned to the example of The Day of the Dead for ways to face the cycle of life that necessarily includes death, both for myself and the clients I hoped to have once I graduated from the Master’s program in counseling and art therapy I was about to enter.  

People sometimes seek therapy when grieving is too painful to be endured alone, when it interferes with day-to-day functioning, or when it seems to last "too long."  Some might argue that the difficulty of enduring grief without structure--customs, rituals, things to do--is what makes people seek help with grieving (Rando, 1988; Bertman, 1999).  Cultural ritual is one such form of structure, and psychotherapy is another.  For some, one or the other might be sufficient as a context for mourning, processing, and healing.  For others, therapy and cultural ritual might be complementary aspects of a consciously constructed process of grief work. 

We all need support for grieving

Everyone experiences loss.  Though you may not have experienced the loss of a close family member or partner through death yet, all of us have lost or left relationships, homes, schools, jobs, pets, and phases of development like childhood.  When we experience change or loss without acknowledging grief and the impact of transition on our psyches, our bodies, and even spirits, we are ignoring a dimension of what it means to be human.  This ignoring prompts our bodies to manifest the impact of change in us in subconscious, perhaps in physiological ways that may result in dysfunction and even disease.  We cannot separate body and mind; what is suppressed in the mind finds a voice in the body and may resurface in emotional, psychological and behavioral issues later.  Ignoring the impact of loss—“accepting and moving on” without another thought—or even actively criticizing ourselves for our feelings and suppressing them is a recipe for mental health problems and it throws away a rich opportunity for meaning-making and growth.


Day of the Dead-inspired Creative Exercises

With art-making, however, we invite meaning, acceptance, and healing.  Try the following creative exercises to touch your own losses, however temporary or small, with an open heart.

1.   Make a table-top altar for someone or something you’ve lost. 

This can be as simple as covering a table with a tablecloth and putting some pictures, writing, objects the person liked, things you’ve written or drawn on top of it.  Light a candle.  Think about the person or thing lost and how you’ve been affected.  Maybe journal or make a collage or drawing.

2.   Create art that expresses how you feel about the person, animal or thing you’ve lost.

Your art can be as simple as some lines and shapes on a page, or as refined as an elaborate portrait of the person you’re remembering.  What is important is the opportunity to slow down, express your feelings, experience the creative process, and honor your own experience of grief or change.  Much of Day of the Dead art makes light of death.  It highlights the absurdity of the cycle of life and wishing for reality to be other than what it is.  It celebrates remembrance and begin with the memories or souls of our dead loved ones.  If you don’t feel sad remembering someone or times past, that’s ok!  You can feel whatever you feel and even poke fun at death in your art or writing.                   

3. Create and practice a ritual for remembering people who have died or things that have ended.

Just as nature brings us the ritual of foliage changing colors and leaving the trees bare for winter each year, so too can we have our own rituals for honoring the cycle of loss and growth in our own lives.  Perhaps making the favorite meal of a deceased loved one and eating it with friends or family will help you honor that person and experience the feelings you still have somewhere inside.  Maybe displaying a copy of a photograph you have written on and added to with colors and designs would help remind you that that person is still a part of you and signal to others that they can speak of that person with you.  Perhaps you could pick a new photograph to make into an art piece at the same time each year--maybe on the anniversary of your loss or the birthday of the person who died. 

The Day of the Dead is full of ritual that honors people who have come before.  The customs of the holiday, such as tending graves, making home altars, and gathering with family and friends for meals and story-telling help participants continue to feel connected to their loved ones and to the ways they have been changed by their lives and deaths.  Although it can never be the same as observing a cultural ritual authentically and holistically in community, taking inspiration from a sacred day like The Day of the Dead and expressing yourself creatively in that tradition can transform and deepen your healing process.

For more information on The Day of the Dead, art-making for grief, or creative arts in grief therapy, click the Let's Connect button below to ask a question or have a free, 30 min. consultation with Valerie.