- Becoming aware of impending loss.
- Searching for meaning.
- Experiencing cultural influences: Receiving no support.
- Having failed healthcare interactions: Dealing with indifference and lack of support.
- Living through it and moving on.
To help us investigate intercultural and multicultural aspects of care and miscarriage, Yuria Celidwen, who self-identifies as Mexican of indigenous descent, will address the cultural and religious ritual of Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) as a way to counteract loneliness and a lack of social support for Latina women who have experienced miscarriage.
When humans are in balance with nature, we have a better understanding of our behavior, of our relationships with others, and of the environment. In this way, we increase our compassion and our active participation in community. Death reveals the extent in which natural events are the primary vehicle of transformative power.
Death is characterized by transition and adaptation. It is not only the end of a life, but the beginning of a new identity. It suggests the creative capacity and compassion of humankind, as it awakens the realization of the interdependence of all beings. Birth and death are stages in life that offer an opportunity for transformation through ritual.
To create a ritual is to leave the habitual space, to set and regard new boundaries and responsibilities. In it, we find a position in relation to the previous stage and the next one. Rituals for birth are joyous, but those for death tend to be dreary and sad. The importance of having more amiable rituals for death is to open possibilities of release and regeneration of the effects of grief. Ritual can offer the opportunity to consciously choose reintegration from heartache, loss, and confusion to harmony, serenity and growth. The tradition of Día de Muertos can offer this call to ritual action, regeneration, and rebirth.
The Mexican holiday of Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead—which was proclaimed an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the UNESCO in 2003—takes place from October 31st to November 2nd of every year. It is the foremost celebration of the conciliation of the apparent ultimate opposites: life and death. This can be seen as a transitory ritual, as defined by Van Gennep (The Rites of Passage 1-13), inasmuch as a person follows a succession of stages in life. It is also a ritual of evolution from the profane to the sacred—as suggested by Eliade (The Sacred and the Profane) and Gennep (Belmont). It is also my favorite holiday, as I grew up immersed in the poetic vibrancy of this tradition. Despite having lived in different countries, it is the one holiday I devotedly celebrate. I find myself constantly sharing it within the culture I live in.
Mexicans embody the jovial aspects of life—honoring the passage through it—with a festival of sensory exaltation through ritual food, arts, and music. The celebrations are quite elaborate, mainly revolving around the careful preparation of an altar, cooking and baking of food offerings, and a night visit and vigil to cemeteries to party with the deceased by their resting tombs.
One way of seeing this celebration is that the altar and cemeteries are spaces of gathering that speak to the magical realism of Mexican culture. It is believed that the spirits of the dead share in the celebrations with the living. It is a celebration of what I see as spiritual embodiment. On the night of November 1st, the souls visit the altars, and enjoy the essence of the offerings; then, the following morning the living partake of the food. In this way, the dead and the living join in celebration, one feasts with the essence, the other with the matter.
As a festival of remembrance, Día de Muertos is a communal vessel for processing loss and emotional grief in a way that is celebratory of life and its cycles. It is a process of meaning-making of the unavoidable reality of impermanence. Through the performative quality of ritual, the community makes peace with the continuous arising and passing away of all phenomena; and each one faces our own eventual passing.
This is not a ritual of mourning, but a poignant ritual of jovial community. Facing the loss is done in a social manner, as it is an opportunity to dialogue with grief in a safe and festive way. It can be said that it is a ritual of transcendence in community, as people connect with the living and include the dead. People invite their psychic energies associated with death and triggered by memories, storytelling and objects; and the community provides a safe vessel to face and release these energies through sensorial experiences and language.
All members of the family are involved in the festivities, children, adults, and elders alike. All have contributions to make, which also provide expressions for their ways of dealing with death. The making of the altar constitutes the container for these emotional expressions. Children start familiarizing with the meaning of absence. Adults find release of emotional and psychological sorrow, and through ritual we channel the suffering in a constructive way. For the elders, it is a process of contemplation, revisiting their life paths and facing their own passing. Día de Muertos is a celebration of life, and the acceptance of life as it is, and not as we want it to be. It is a festival to make sense of the process of creation and transcendence through the sublimation of life: as one form of life ceases, another one awakens.
This festival is a very complex mix of customs and practices that also coincides with the period of harvest of maize, beans and squash, the main staples in Mexico. The festivities represent a mix of urban and rural customs, and the mestizo origin of the Mexican population that combines elements of the multi-ethnic and pluricultural traditions of the country.
Among the Indigenous beliefs of central Mexico is the journey to the Afterlife, to a place called Mictlan, the Land of the Dead. The initial journey takes four days, after which, upon arrival to the Mictlan, the traveler offers gifts to the Lords of the Dead, Mictecacíhuatl, and her husband, Mictlantecuhtli. Depending on the life of the person, they go to one of the nine levels of the Mictlan. There they dwell another four years undergoing purifying tests until finally they go the lowermost level, the place of the eternal rest, called Chiconahualóyan or “place of the nine waters”. Among the different levels is the place called Chichihualcuauhco, which is the dwelling of babies who had passed. In this place there is a great nursing-tree with flowers and fruit in the form of breasts from where fresh milk flows. The souls of these infants remain in this place until it is the time for them to come back to life.
Death is a human process that brings out the utmost experience of vulnerability. The ritual of Día de Muertos offers an extraordinary opportunity to tend to our anguish and fears provoked by the death of our loved ones and our own death. Therefore, by creating safe ritual spaces to befriend our existential questions and sorrows, we cultivate our mental health and enhance our relational capacity. This becomes especially helpful when dealing with loss that is not totally openly talked about and shared, like miscarriage.
Miscarriage is more common than we imagine, with around 15 to 20 percent of pregnancies lost in the first trimester in the United States (Cohain, Buxbaum and Mankuta). However, perception of miscarriage is widely confused. Couples usually are left to deal with the grief in silence, and mostly in isolation. This leaves both partners prone to depression and emotional and psychological crisis. Women feel profoundly inadequate, unsuitable, and suffer an overpowering sense of guilt, constantly questioning if they had caused it. A shockingly 60 percent of couples separate within the first three years after the loss (Gold, Sen and Hayward).
In my own experience going through the sorrows of miscarriage twice—and ending a relationship within a year of it—I found in Día de Muertos a container to deal with grief in a very tangible way. I embodied my grief with a performing ritual, channeling it through creative expression that involves nature, music and art. A space surrounded by nature nourished the bond with my baby. I played music and sang to her—just as I did when she was in my womb—so she could rest in peace to the sound of water in a flowing river. I know she lies at the roots of a sacred plant, nourishing her love to another being, and sucking the milk of the fruit tree of life.
Through this ritual I found a space in which to dialogue with my experience— my attachment to unfulfilled hope and the acceptance of a future lost—and with the few memories I have of her (how she giggled when I sang; the saints that came to bless her in my dreams; what I noticed as different from before she was in me). The physical bond I had with her is, spiritually, still here. I embraced myself as I embraced her, with continuous compassionate nourishing, until the time came that I let the sorrow peacefully go. I found acceptance of the loss and came to peace with the cycles of living and dying. The ritual itself is the tree from which Mother Life pours her milky way to sweeten back my heart.
1) Establishing safe spaces for support.
These places can be cultivated from communal ritual practices, be it in ceremonial and spiritual centers, or at the workplace. These support spaces can be made available for the community as part of organizational initiatives, and they do not have to be culture specific.
2) Opening communal spaces.
Supportive safe spaces can take many forms. Chapels, meditation shrines, prayer rooms, community support rooms are good examples. It is key to establish a sense of community, and communication, so that women can talk about their experience in a shared environment that offers attentive and compassionate care. Open communal spaces are respected spaces, in which humans share our common humanity and vulnerability.
3) Creating reciprocity rings within our communities.
These community-building initiatives help in reassuring a shared bond and strong support systems. Organize gatherings for members to get together, connect and develop networks. Within these communities concerns are shared, and help is requested. Members offer support and tangible help within their possibilities.
4) Making readily available skillful psychological as well as pastoral care.
We emphasize the value of mental and spiritual health. These various forms of support have tremendous impact on people’s well-being, and have a long-lasting effect on how people cope with adverse events.
The important aspect is to strengthen community bonding, mental health, and spiritual support. When we share our common humanity and develop consciousness of our life together we realize that:
- We do not have to deal with anything alone;
- Sharing grief with others makes it easier to make sense of loss;
- We can find meaning in adversity;
- We can be resilient; and
- We can be open again to joy.
Belmont, Nicole. "Gennep, Arnold van." Vers. 2nd ed. Vol. 5. 2005. Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. Macmillan Reference USA. Electronic. 9 March 2013. <http://go.galegroup.com.pgi.idm.oclc.org/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CCX3424501154&v=2.1&u=carp39441&it=r&p=GVRL&sw=w>.
Cohain, Judy Slome, Rina E. Buxbaum and David Mankuta. Spontaneous first trimester miscarriage rates per woman among parous women with 1 or more pregnancies of 24 weeks or more. 22 Dec 2017. BMC Pregnancy childbirth. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5741961/.
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1957.
Gennep, Arnold Van. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.
Gold, Katherine J., Ananda Sen and Rodney A. Hayward. Marriage and Cohabitation Outcomes After Pregnancy Loss. 5 Apr 2010 . https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2883880/.
A member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Joseph Kim Paxton is an ICTG Advisor while pursuing doctoral degrees in Practical Theology at the Claremont School of Theology. His current research areas include clinical-community psychology, pastoral care, social scientific approaches to biblical interpretation, group processes, spiritual struggle, coping, and attitudes.
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This article was co-authored by Yuria Celidwen, doctoral candidate in mythological studies and cultural psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Yuria is a native of Chiapas (Mexico), her research focuses on ethics and compassion within world mythologies and mystical traditions from an interdisciplinary approach that conjoins reason and emotion, scientific inquiry and contemplative practices. Her interests are the development of identity in cultural and personal narratives, the experience of the holy, and the cultivation of altruism and consciousness for social and environmental justice. She is co-chair of the Psychology, Culture and Religion unit, and the Women’s Caucus Liaison to the Board of the American Academy of Religion—Western Region, and she works for the United Nations in New York.