Celebrating Life Again on Halloween

Author: Carla Stumpf Patton

Carved Pumpkins

Of the many obstacles we face after the loss of a loved one is how to tackle those extra challenging hallmark calendar dates. These often entail the more emotionally charged days such as birthdays, wedding anniversaries, memorial dates (aka "angelversaries”) and other specific holidays that might hold special relevance to ourselves and of our loved ones. This can often feel even more challenging when these days are all bundled together around the same period of time, or even worse, when they coincide and occur on the same day. I experienced this when my life became forever changed by the date on the calendar: October 31, 1994. Halloween. My husband, a 24-year old Marine Corps Drill Instructor, died by suicide that very morning and I was notified later that night, just days before our first child was due to be born. To add to the already highly traumatic situation, on morning of the funeral, I was rushed to the hospital in labor and gave birth to our son, at the same time the funeral went on without me.

There was nothing intentional about “the date” per se, except the birth of our baby was fast approaching. Halloween merely ended up being the fateful day on the calendar when a culmination of catastrophic events converged into what could be referred to as a "perfect storm"-subsequently resulting in my husband dying by suicide. We were all left emotionally devastated and forever changed.

patton weddingAll at once, I was immediately faced with the most conflicting experiences of death and life, sorrow and happiness, past and future, despair and hope, and tragedy and joyfulness. Within a period of eight weeks, I had to figure out how to face our wedding anniversary, my birthday, Halloween, the date of his death, the birth of our child, and Veterans Day, and then his birthday, which commonly occurs on Thanksgiving Day. Out of all of these dates, the most difficult time was his death falling on the exact same day as his favorite holiday of Halloween. Halloween had always been the holiday which was "ours" to celebrate during the Fall season. Now our child’s birthday fell into this season too. 

Fast forwarding through that next year of all those "firsts" without him physically being present, one of the hurdles of the unknown was going to be how I would approach "that day" on the calendar. Halloween symbolized the past celebrations, as well as all of the other life-changing moments. I knew I had to make a decision on how I would "get through" the date, so I chose to find ways to make it work, not only for me, but for my son. Like every other child, he should grow up with the right to embrace the season with fun.  

Rather than avoiding the day or torturing myself with reliving all of the painful memories, I made the deliberate and conscious decision to embrace the day in ways I knew my husband would want for us. Death may have taken him, but I was left with life. I knew I had to find ways to find the balance between the two. In trying to comprehend this “circle of life”, there were countless unexplained “signs” from the universe immediately occurring after my husband’s death (and through the birth of our baby). These all indicated my husband was with us in spirit. 

Marine I was left to make new traditions and rituals that would bring comfort and healing. In addition to lighting memorial candles, sending and receiving flowers, and making the phone calls to the family members, I chose to still celebrate Halloween- with the decorations, the costumes, and of the fall festivities. The most unique tradition I carried on was my husband's belief our house should always be the one all the neighborhood kids would fondly remember as “the best house on the block”; in part because we should have the best candy, which meant we gave full-size chocolate bars.  Of course it cost more to offer such treats, but it was a small yet meaningful gesture I could offer in his memory that I know he would love. I also took comfort from the cultural and spiritual significance of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and All Saints Day.

In hindsight, I can see the harder I tried to fight it, the harder it all felt. So what worked for me was actually confronting what was so challenging about those specific days, as opposed to denying it. More simply put, “the date” was going to come whether I wanted it to or not. And after all, it was just 24 hours on the calendar and all I had to do was “make it through”.  Rather than avoiding it, I chose to power through it with meaningful and positive actions. This made it something to plan for ahead which somehow made it easier getting through the day when it actually arrived.  Many years later it has been what helps me get through all of those difficult days. The traditions still hold and have even evolved into doing more activities around this time of year- like attending community events for suicide prevention, donating to my local blood drive and food banks, and participating in Veterans Day parades. Some of these things I can do independently and honor his memory silently in my own unique way; other activities include our family members and friends. It can be something as small as lighting a memorial candle, or something helpful done for someone else in need. What matters most is I am able to continue to find purpose and meaning throughout my journey of grief, and in doing so, I continue to find ways I can “remember the love, celebrate the life, and share the journey”.