Last weekend, my husband and I were part of the 30th annual All Souls Procession here in Tucson. It is part of the Mexican & Latin American celebration of El Diá de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead – see link below for an article about it). November 1st & 2nd are set aside to gather as a community to show our love and respect for our loved ones who have died. I have heard that Tucson’s celebration is one of the largest in America with about 100,000 people.
While John and & were walking, carrying a large photo poster of our son decorated with marigold-colored trim & lights, a woman in the procession came up to us and asked John, “Who is that?” John responded, “This is our son who died of a heroin overdose at 25.” The woman’s face froze for a few moments as we continued walking, then she looked down and turned to walk away as she said in a low voice with a pained look on her face, “My daughter is an addict.”
We don’t know why this woman was drawn to come up to us and ask that question, but we are glad she did. We walked in the procession for several reasons: to honor our son, JL, and not let him be forgotten; to join our community in remembering our loved ones; and, to physically push back against the shame and stigma associated with substance use. Clearly, this woman was feeling the pain of having a child struggling with addiction. We remember the feelings well, anticipating the next trauma, and wondering if our son would ever be free and his true self again.
Celebrating El Diá de los Muertos together doesn’t mean we all have the same spiritual background or beliefs. And there are probably many who consider themselves agnostics, until. Until someone who you are very close to and love more than yourself dies – a spouse or a child – it is almost a universal response to feel that they must be somewhere, that some part of our loved one, the essential part of their being, still exists. Wishful thinking? Maybe. But why would the majority of people throughout history have felt a connection with those who have died if it is not true?
As a Christian, I don’t see death and the grave as the end of the story. Rather, it is part of the continuum of life: we are conceived, born, live our lives, die one way or another, and pass into a different and new existence, an entirely different and spiritual one. Isaiah put it this way: “One day, your dead will live and the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.” We are looking forward to that day when we will see our son, no longer struggling against opioids, free from sadness and shame. Until then, we will continue to fight against the dark shroud of shame that keeps those fighting addiction from seeking and receiving the help they long for.
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