I read a post on Facebook that described bereavement as the inability to give all the love and feelings we have towards a person who is no longer physically with us. Bereavement brings up a host of feelings, ranging from relief, guilt, shame, rage, surprise, excitement, and hope. The feeling that stands out the most for me is always my confusion on how to make sense of my life without theirs.

Who gets to say how we grieve? What does death mean to us and how does this influence how we live life?

My family grieves death intensely; we carry our big emotions and we throw parties. In the months after my grandmother’s death, we felt the slowness of mourning, like an incoming ocean tide covering the shores of our lives. We gravitated towards our most familiar spaces. These are the spaces where we could flip between simmering in our overwhelming confusion or distract ourselves from our sadness. The living room sofa maintained the curled up position where we openly cried, before tuning into the evening novelas. We poured our time into working on documents and assignments, doing whatever we could not to pause. If we paused, only distant memories would greet us.

One of the hardest parts of losing my grandmother was my awareness that I just couldn’t compartmentalize my pain. There was no box I could shelve away all my feelings, memories, and ideas of her. The box had no lid and the memories were both gravity-defying and h e a v y. My efforts to compartmentalize did nothing. The world didn’t stop, even if it had stopped for us. Even if we were together, even if I was surrounded by people I cherished or were familiar to me, I always felt isolated. The oxygen I breathed in felt humid and thick, foreign to my lungs. I never quite felt like I was taking in the kind of life-affirming air I needed. It felt like dragging steel boots through plows of mud – the more we tried to make movement, the thicker the mud that enveloped the tops of our shoes. We felt weighted.

As the last day of October crept around, there was a different energy in my household. The mournfulness still hung in the air but there was a greater energy – a sense of urgency – that disrupted the fog.

I drove back and forth to several grocery stores as I kept forgetting to pick up items. An array of sweet pastries, with preference given to conchas, sugary cookies, and related pan dulces. Apples. Carnation flowers, or any type of flowers, really. Instant coffee. Oaxacan hot chocolate. My sister brings up an armful of colorful candles of different shapes and sizes. Mama hastily gets home from work, turns on the stove, and immediately gets to cooking. My dad will be home, though it’s often right before we start our celebration.

My family doesn’t make or buy sugar skulls, despite their iconic representation of the holiday. Instead, our altar is messily decorated with a spread of old photos of loved ones who have died. A rare snapshot of my grandmothers who lived in different countries meeting each other. A picture of an uncle I’ve never met who really loved his coffee black. I also offer up gifts I’ve received from friends who have crossed to the other side. 

One such object is a coin I received at the Buddhist funeral of a friend who I played video games with. Another is an article clipping of a gentle-hearted classmate who died before he was able to go to college. A marble that in my mind has come to represent my friend’s sibling’s soul. There are others, too. I momentarily notice that the number of objects I bring to the ofrenda is increasing as I myself get older. I set the objects alongside the display next to my family.

By this point, Papa is home and everyone who is present gradually makes their way to the display. The lights are dimmed slightly, just enough to highlight the aura given off by the lit candles. We commence the celebration. Our cultural holiday marks the time of the year where our deceased loved ones symbolically cross over to the material world to engage in festivities with us. We all sit at the dinner table together. We recreate the energy of reading an old fairytale book from long ago, dusting off old memories.

“Remember the time Grandma watered the fake plants and got super pissed at you for laughing at her?” Laughter. A pause. Gentle smiles. “That’s right. Her eyesight got bad in the last few years of her life.”

“Your uncle used to be so tall, he’d have to crouch over in order to dance with me.” Laughter as the image clunkily manifested in our minds.

“I loved that time we went to the old house back in Mexico.” “It was the house you grew up in, no?” “Yeah. Don’t you remember when we visited and you girls played with the basket filled with kittens?” “Oh my god, yes. I still wish we would have adopted them.” “That was the first time we met everyone, right?”

A collective swig of their favorite tequila. The taste burns my nostrils.

The candles flicker as we finish off our servings. The tears in our eyes are swirled, in part with residual happiness from the stories told and the impending good-byes. I gaze at the altar decorated with memorabilia, photos, and untouched food. I find myself feeling fully present in the moment. I have expressed love, I have given love, and I have received love. I feel connected to myself, my family, my friends, my world, and an obscure part of something larger than myself. The murky tides that once covered the shore have left behind spots of gratitude for the experiences I got to share and a sadness cleared by clarity.

I know my grief will flow back into me, perhaps when I least expect it. I also know it will ebb back and leave me with these gifts.