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charm and challenge of October

Navigating Halloween After Loss

October is here. I find myself wondering how summer went by so fast. There is a crispness in the air now that lines the edges of even the warmest days. Trees in my yard have started to turn. Flowers are wilting … and up the street, one of my neighbors has orange lights strung through his yard.

Each year, many of my neighbors decorate for Halloween. Back in the day, when I was young, we simply put a pumpkin out. Things are more elaborate now. Last year, I’m told that Americans spent over eight billion dollars on Halloween decorations alone, not counting costumes and candy. Many look forward to October 31st, planning costumes for themselves, their children, or their pets, but those who are grieving often feel an added ache of loneliness. Their loved one is not there to help, to participate, and to enjoy.

Over the years, at support groups, I’ve heard many newly bereaved survivors say they are disturbed by some of the particularly grotesque decorations that pop up in stores and around their neighborhoods. I can understand that. Three years ago, that neighbor who is now working on the orange lights built a real graveyard in his yard … with grave robbers, half-finished … looking like they left in a hurry. Ten years before that, my new next-door neighbors, unaware that my stepson had hanged himself the year before, installed a dummy hanging with a rope around his neck, off the front of their roof. (To their credit, when my daughter mentioned our loss, they immediately took it down.)

For newer survivors especially, Halloween is often a holiday to be “endured.” 

New survivors have little emotional resilience and are in no mood for a party, especially one involving blood, gravestones, or gore. They struggle with intense emotions, often feeling suffocated by their feelings. Generalized anxiety is frequently high for new survivors. They have experienced real-life horror and are often haunted by their dreams. Many are troubled with symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

It will not always be that way. Things do get easier with time, but in the beginning, each landmark day brings a deepened awareness of one’s loss.

On another note, I was recently told by an Irish friend, that Halloween has its origins in Ireland’s Celtic past: that it was an important fire festival, celebrated on the evening of October 31st, and into the next day when flames of old fires had to be extinguished and ceremonially re-lit by druids. In many respects, it was a festival like our modern New Year’s Day in that it carried the notion of casting out the old and moving into the new.

Today Halloween doesn’t carry that connotation. Our culture focuses on candy and costumes, which for the most part, results in a lot of fun. There is no reason, however, that we as a survivor community can’t hold in our awareness that we are rekindling our fire and that of others around us… and moving into the “new.”

About the Author

Ronnie Walker

Ronnie Walker MS, LCPC is the Founder and Executive Director of the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors. She is a survivor of suicide loss.Read More »