I’ve been in a vile mood for a month now, but the arrival of Dia de los Muertos put everything in perspective. Since I found a new home for Penelope, my beloved rescue chihuahua, in early October, I have moped and grieved and been curmudgeonly on campus.
Penny herself is in heaven — not literally, but a place in the country where she can live collarless, hunt mice with her best dog friends Alice and Frank, then collapse for the night with the People in their bed. She’s been on a road trip to Tennessee; she’s been invited to a wedding; the pup is living an Instagram-worthy life.
Meanwhile, I’m at home, debating whether another glass of wine is a wise idea.
The Mexican holiday, “Day of the Day,” took place over the weekend just past. It’s a time to reflect on memories of loved ones who have died, and to celebrate and grieve and gather for good food and stories. The gorgeous animated movie “Coco” — which can be viewed as art as well as a family-friendly story — popularized many of the traditions popular across Mexico’s many regions. But we here in Liberal, Kansas, with our demographically flipped population, have the inside track on how this observance works to heal and to unite.
For someone like me, occasionally mistaken for a Spanish-speaking Latina but completely not, Dia de los Muertos is exotic and unfamiliar. For some of my coworkers and many of our students though, it’s a powerful opportunity for healing. A friend in another department confided to me that it’s their aspiration to see a “Dia de los Muertos” display in the main hallway of Hobble Hallway. (English instructors note, “their” in this context serves as a tool for anonymity.)
“It might freak some people out because it kind of looks like an altar with photographs of loved ones and candles and their favorite things spread out, along with flowers,” the person said, “but I think it would be really great for our students, and for us.” Our coworker is right.
Sadness is an invisible companion that can all too easily become a shadow. Somehow, community illuminates grief and then transforms it.
This campus is small enough that it’s nearly impossible for personal losses to go unnoticed. And we’ve weathered many in five short years. Employees, friends, spouses, parents, even children, all of it achingly hard to handle. It makes my loss of a pet, real as it may be, look pretty paltry.
The good thing about the Saints family is that we share our sorrows. I’ll never forget the cohort of newly-minted coworkers who showed up at my daughter’s funeral, even though I’d only been an employee for a few months. It was no surprise, then, when the college offered a bus to transport team members to an out-of-town funeral, or provided excused absences for local services.
Like freezer-ready casseroles, the support doesn’t stop the week after the flowers go in the bin. It’s no exaggeration to say that our campus culture supports the whole person, not just in words but in deeds. It’s not unknown for SCCC employees to take what the rest of the world calls “mental health days,” also known in Kansas as “trying to avoid the flu” or “I got a little worn out.” In day-to-day interactions, supervisors have been known to remind critics that “so and so is still getting back to normal after the death of their loved one,” advocating a bit of extra grace.
I’m pretty sure I’ve drawn on that bank of community kindness in the past few weeks, dealing with my own, pet-related emotions. A simple question, “Are you OK, Rachel?” brought me near tears one day, while a week later, it reminded me to smile. A coworker’s patience with a rant of negativity felt as soothing as ointment, and dissolved my bitterness (though I’m pretty sure I owe that person a coffee or a fruit basket. Something to replace the soul-eroding cynicism of my words).
This year’s Dia de los Muertos has come and gone, though we carry those loved ones in our hearts. Next year, I’m planning for candles, flowers, and a hallway that glows with abiding affection.
Read more about Dia de los Muertos at MexicanSugarSkull.com, where you will find many resources for creating your own Ofrenda memorial.
Rachel Coleman is a recovering newspaper writer who currently serves as Executive Director of Marketing & P.R., and leads the Inclusiveness & Civility Mover Team at SCCC. To read more of her columns, visit her blog at rachelcoleman.wordpress.com. This opinion column reflects the personal perspective of its author, and is not intended to reflect the official position of Seward County Community College.