Halloween has no soul

(and our lives are all the poorer for it)

I have been to a lot of Halloween parties but have always felt a little disingenuous.

I guess part of me never really saw the point as to why we were getting dressed up as vampires, skeletons, wizards or witches.

Or maybe its just me?

Maybe everyone else is a lot much comfortable about dressing up and ‘looking like death’ than I am?

Maybe I’m over-reacting.

Maybe this is the only time of the year we can go all out with some fancy dress without being judged for enjoying ourselves?

Maybe because its all just fancy dress, we can show death we are not afraid? We can literally laugh in death’s face while we stuff ourselves with sugar?

For a culture that doesn’t have much of a place for death, Halloween seems deeply incongruous.

What is Halloween all about?
At least with the other ‘Hallmark’ holidays like Christmas and Easter, I at least know the stories behind them. Regardless of whether I have an active faith, I could at least see the link to the beliefs, ancient stories and traditions and make some sort of sense of it all.

As far as I can make out, Halloween seems to be mainly about selling vast quantities of chocolate, candy and fancy dress outfits.

Somewhat alarmingly, even Merriam-Webster seems to have its definition of Halloween summarised as “the night of October 31 when children dress up as ghosts, witches, monsters, etc., and go to houses to ask for candy”.
The way we mark Halloween seems very disconnected from anything with a deeper meaning.

This festival, held as the year darkens and the leaves fall, has severed its links to remembering the ones gone before us.

The festival that was all about souls of the departed, has no soul.

I’d be laughing at the irony, of this soul-less festival about the dead, if recent experience hadn’t made me see the void more sharply.

Here’s my disclaimer: This year my anti-Halloween grumpiness has been raised considerably by the death of my husband, in the January of this year.

Suddenly the dancing skeletons don’t seem like quite such a jolly joke any more.

Not after the realities of the last twelve months.

No time or place? The yawning gap in our calendars
For all the ghouls in the supermarket aisles, our cultural discomfort with death is enormous. Even more so if it is an ‘out of order death’. One so unexpected it comes with its own layer of silence, taboo and burden on the grievers.

What I have learned this year, is that it hurts beyond anything you could imagine to lose someone you love.

In this last year I have also learned that there is little place for death, grief and remembering our loved ones in our culture.

In these last twelve months I have learned we rarely talk freely about our loved ones who are gone.

I have learned that we have very little idea how to help ourselves or others who are struggling along, lost deep in their grief.

I have seen well-meaning friends reach blindly for the only platitudes they know, sometimes unwittingly rubbing salt into the freshest, rawest wound you’ll ever feel.

We are completely unmoored and adrift when it comes to living with great loss and grief and helping those who are mourning.

We cannot find the right language because we have no common language for this.

We do not know what to do.

We do not know where to turn for comfort.

There is no place in our calendar, for getting death out in the open and acknowledging the people we miss.

Our lack of a real communal festival for the dead (at Halloween), and the conversations that would accompany it, contribute to making us a society which is no good at dealing with death and comforting those who grieve. 
The missing link?
We have layered some of our festivals together over the course of history. Christian traditions often co-opting older pagan festivals such as Christmas in midwinter (all about birth and marking the start of looking ahead to the new year).

Easter, in springtime, marking the bursting forth of the season and new life (and the resurrection in the Christian tradition).

But we’re missing a huge piece of the puzzle. We can’t (unfortunately) have birth and new life without also having death. It is as natural a part of life as is being born.

Maybe there really is something in the air?
Maybe the time of year lends itself well to this part in marking the cycle of life. Many cultures, all across our planet seem to feel the need to deal with trouble-making spirits at this time of year.

In the northern hemisphere the leaves are falling to the earth. This is the end of the cycle of growth. The cold dark nights of winter are almost breathing down our necks.

It seems like a very natural time to be marking the end and remembering those we loved who are already gone.

I love to travel and I’m often fascinated (but not surprised) at how similar some things are, wherever you are in the world. Even if they look similar on the surface.

Looking a bit more widely, many cultures also find a greater connection with their loved ones through festivals held at this time of year.

I’m a Brit who lived in Hong Kong for none years and it never ceased to amaze me that the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts happened at a very similar time to Halloween.

It’s very hard to condense this festival into a few short paragraphs but it has parallels with the Halloween belief that at this particular time of year restless souls and troublesome spirits are on the loose, and that the whole community can come together and help them onwards.

I’d come home from work and the smell of smoke would be thick in the street and communal stairwell of my block of flats. People would be burning joss paper and leaving food offerings for the restless spirits, who may not have had a proper ritual send off, everything they might need.

Its seems like an extraordinarily kind and generous gesture. The whole community taking care of the souls of those who may not have been cared for well. Much like some of our older Halloween traditions, these offerings are also aimed at stopping these restless ghosts from wreaking havoc with the living.

The same Hungry Ghosts festival also honours other much-missed family members and ancestors. Other traditions at this festival include keeping a seat at the table for those (ancestors) who are no longer here.

In addition to this festival, there are two other public holidays Ching Ming and Cheung Yeung dedicated traditionally to caring for their ancestors graves.

When I lived in Hong Kong, I lived alongside but never really understood how the links to ancestors merged so seamlessly into daily modern life. But since losing my husband I have come to appreciate these traditions in a very new light.

Ancient traditions meet modern psychology
Grief theory isn’t something most people spend a lot of time thinking about. I didn’t think about it at all until I found myself adrift after my husband and very aware how little I knew and how few role models I had.

Most people have vaguely heard of the ‘Five Stages’ model by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. So therefore expect you to go through five neat and distinct phases ending with ‘acceptance’ and its close cousin ‘moving on’. (Which is making me grind my teeth slightly even as I type this).

The trouble is that this model is more for coming to terms with your own death or a terminal diagnosis than for grief. Kubler-Ross herself has since said that this isn’t a linear model (or a timeline).

What saved my sanity was learning about a newer model of grief, that seemed a better fit for how things play out in real life.

Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief (Death Education, Ageing and Health Care) was published by Klass, Silverman, and Nickman in 1996.

In essence this theory sees grief as a natural and healthy response to loss.

There is nothing to ‘get over’ or ‘move on from’. Its not about staying stuck in grief and misery. Its about redefining your relationship with the person, even though they are no longer here.

What I have learned is that you don’t stop loving someone when they die and you certainly don’t forget them. The newer theory of Continuing Bonds seemed like a blessing and a relief when I found it.

I don’t think I’m explaining this particularly well, but the wonderful people at What’s Your Grief? have written an excellent article on how the Continuing Bonds model works (click this link for the full story and how it differs from the five stages).

One way to continue the bond with those who are gone is to start new traditions. Finding little ways to remember them at times of year that have their own meaning. This could be as simple as cooking their favourite dishes on birthdays or holidays but the sky is the limit on what you can come up with.

Marking out a space and a way to remember people seems to resonate quite strongly with what little I know of the Mexican Day of the Dead festival.

In addition to prayer and religious observance, people bring gifts, food photos and other memorabilia to the graves of their loved ones. People are remembered, stories are told (often the funny ones that make everyone laugh). This is how you love people who are no longer here.

To me this little example feels like modern psychology is catching up with the wisdom in an ancient tradition. Remembering those who were gone. Taking some time to do this (as a community). Making it a part of the calendar.

Is this a time for new (or old) traditions?
Maybe despite our cultural amnesia on the significance of the festival, the fact we do still mark Halloween shows that it does have a place in our lives. 
The urge to mark the change into the ‘darker half of the year’ still runs unbroken back to the older traditions of Samhain and Allhallowtide.

It might just be that we need to be willing to look back to Halloween’s older roots and to the earn from similar traditions around the world to help us find some of the connections we so desperately miss.

By adding in some ‘new’ traditions (or borrowing some ancient ones) that help us continue our bonds with those we love who are not here to celebrate with us.

Using the traditions from this darkening time of the year to connect with, rather than disconnect from those we love, who we can no longer see.