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What Mexico’s Day of the Dead Celebration Teaches Us About Living in This Year of Loss

Though NextTribe isn't making our regular Dia de los Muertos trip this year, we can pass on this message as the COVID toll mounts: don't be scared of death; be scared of not living.

I’m not one of those women who does girlfriend trips.  I never belonged to a sorority.  I’m a happy introvert who loves traveling with my husband or my sisters—but I’ve never been drawn to girls’ trips, or worse: organized tours with complete strangers. So it came as quite a surprise when I found myself saying yes to Jeannie Ralston’s invitation to fill in a last-minute opening on the NextTribe San Miguel de Allende trip at the end of October.

I’ve actually wanted to go since she started these trips a few years back, but I always decide that it would be “too much” to leave for a week; too much money, too much time away from the kids, too much “scary” to do something on my own, too much for my husband to manage without me, etc. This year was no different. I found all the excuses, plus this year, I had the added excuse of my brother.  He had just been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.  This was definitely not the right year to say yes to San Miguel.

day of the dead Mexico

The author, Tanja Knutson, at a rooftop restaurant.

Facing Mortality

But just then my 23-year-old son called me on his drive home from work.  Jeannie had been his beloved high school English teacher years ago. My son disagreed with my excuses. He said I only ever travel for work, or to visit family, or to attend conferences.  But I never, ever do anything just for me. Plus, he said “Jeannie’s legit.  She’s your people.” He felt that the trip would have a grounding effect, and bolster me for the rough months ahead as we faced my brother’s mortality.

It was probably a good thing it was last-minute, otherwise I would have certainly talked myself out of it. There are just so many things that could go wrong when you’re traveling a week with 12 strangers, and my imagination did not disappoint.

However, the reality turned out to be absolutely amazing.  Each meal, each shopping excursion, each tour felt like another chance to get to know someone in the group. Everyone was open and curious. Our first dinner was wonderful; when we all eagerly listened to each woman share their story and their reason for coming to San Miguel. I said yes to the trip because I was curious about the city, eager to connect to other women, and ready to own my age. But one of the main reasons that I signed up was because the trip fell during the Day of the Dead celebrations. Knowing that death was looming in my family, I was curious to discover how death was dealt with in other cultures. I was desperate to find a way to ease the pain of my brother’s tragic diagnosis, as well as figure out a way of coping with losing him.

day of the dead Mexico

The group out on the town with painted faces in the tradition of Catrinas, which have come to be identified with Day of the Dead in Mexico. Image by Hal Schade.

Day of the Dead: What I Saw at the Cemetery

I wish I could convey the emotions we experienced when visiting the cemetery.  There was joy in the bright orange and fuchsia flowers adorning each grave, and in the mariachi bands serenading the visitors.

There were happy children being fed treats next to a photo of a lost loved one.  There was industrious busy-ness of people carrying buckets of water to wash the headstones and graves.  There was chatting and laughter all around. But there was also deep respect and solemnity in the quietly long queues, in the dedication to decorating the graves, and in the remembering of loved ones.  I will forever see death differently as a result of this experience.

I do not believe that everything “happens for a reason,” especially brain cancer.  But I do believe that good things can emerge from bad things, that hardship and sorrow can launch fragments of joy.  My brother’s diagnosis made me stop and assess my life.  And I came to the conclusion: I will not let his suffering leave me unchanged.  How dare I not say YES to living?  How dare I stay complacent and not take advantage of the opportunities that land in my lap? There are rich destinations that need to be explored, intoxicating colors waiting to be inhaled, unfathomable lists of things to be grateful for, people looking for kindness, people wanting to be kind, beautiful deep breaths waiting to be breathed, and I am blessed enough to have been able to say yes to an amazing week in San Miguel.

day of the dead Mexico

Local guide, Angelica Juárez Rios of Angelica Tours, telling the group about the meaning of the altars outside San Miguel’s old cemetery.

Read More: Where Have All My Friends Gone? Dealing With the Losses That Come at Midlife

Top photo by Cindy McCann.

By Tanja Knutson


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