How an Altar Can Profoundly Contribute to Your Well Being

Dia De Los Muertos 2017

After All the Devoted Effort, Being With My Altar

Staring at her picture against the backdrop of handwoven fabric, mustard yellow marigolds, sunflower and decorative paper skulls all aglow by the rays of the Virgin Guadalupe candle, my gratitude filled heart uttered the prayers I heard her reverently say throughout my childhood, “Padre nuestro que estás en el cielo, santificado sea tu nombre…….”.


Unexpectedly the memory of her laugh began to echo in my mind’s ear. It’s effect like that of a stinging arrow piercing my chest and releasing an outpouring of sorrowful and guttural sobs. In mustering up all my strength to continue the prayers, the waves of heartache would soften, then reach an almost unbearable peak, only to soften again. Much like delivering my son, between each wave of pain I pushed myself to breath, stay open, defer the reflex to clam up and instead yield.


Only a Small Window of Time to Explore The Vast Mystery,

I get in only a few rounds of the Our fathers and Hail Marys in between the sobs until, I look at the time and realize my time is up and I must move into the rest of my day. My sleeve wipes my tear streaked cheeks and as I walk down my hallway I feel a resultant peace in me like a low lying “hummmm…” throughout my body. Although those few minutes felt like forever, the effort to sit at my altar for Dia de Los Muertos and gaze at my grandmother’s image has brought a peace and satisfaction that would of have taken endless hours of therapy to arrive at.

Diving Into The  Power of The Altar

As a final farewell to the beloved Dia De Los Muertos tradition, today I will touch on the sensitive and difficult topic of loss as it relates to our well being through a different perspective. Last week I touched on the significance of traditions that were created all over the world across the ages as self care for communities as a whole, and gave 5 ideas on how to craft your own tradition. You can check that out here. Today I will dive into how the the specific practice of creating an altar in the tradition of El Dia De Los Muertos, can help us engage with our own healing.


The topic of celebrating death may be too spooky for many of you to even entertain and so in this post I’m offering a perspective that may open the wedge of that slightly opened door of your willingness.


What has been true for me is that when I take the time to contemplate the heavier loaded parts of my life  with the intention of relating to them in healthier ways, the relief  ripples into the rest of my life.



We can’t fully release the parts of our lives that are uncomfortable and painful until we fully own them, the only way is through.


We All Relate To Death, How Is Your Relationship?

Whether our relationship to death is one of  absolute horror, resentment,  respect, or simply vacant because we have yet to experience a profound loss, when we take the time to explore it,  we uncover a wealth of acceptance, insight, wisdom and renewal that’s worth exploring.

Moving Beyond the Pedi and Mani of Self Care

Tending to this relationship is not on the same self care plane as getting enough sleep, exercise and eating right. It’s less foundational than that yet strikes at the core of our existence and is so big that it encompasses everything. The awareness of our finite existence looms in the background of our day to day activities only to come under our attention when we experience close brushes with it like, being barely missed by a speeding car when crossing the street.


To approach this relationship intentionally, gradually and gently through what I see as an annual self care ritual like creating an altar for El Dia De Los Muertos, reveals a fertile foundation for a life of more creativity, humanity, compassion and even pleasure.


Pleasure?!! you may gasp. How in the world does pleasure relate to death.


Accepting Our Limits, Intensifies Our Ability to Savor

Ever been on a ferris wheel with someone you love? The enjoyment of the gently swinging cart and the wide skyed perspective is made all the more gratifying because we know it will end soon.

Being reminded of the fragility of our flesh and bones helps us to relish all the more who and what is important to us in the same way we enjoy a dessert at a restaurant that would be too embarrassing to order seconds. In resigning to the limits of the situation, we savor all the more, every, decadent spoonful. The absoluteness of death, puts things in stark perspective.


Engage The Intimidating to Humanize It

In this light humor me while I explain my aha moment regarding the process of studying and tending to our relationship with our mortality.


Remember being at school and dreading big tests?  “Lorena what in the world does that have to do with Dia De Los Muertos?!” you may ask…but stay with me.


Breaking Down The Fear Through Action

Tests to this day are many times, big scary things that determine important things like whether you passed a class,  got that GPA, was accepted into that school or granted entrance into an industry.


When you’d study for the test though, its ominous presence would gradually morph into something else. The big seemingly impossible-ness of it, dwindled into a more doable process, one aha moment of understanding at a time.


Your growing familiarity with the test’s knowledge loosened the grip of your fear and gave way to a little more breathing room.


The more we stayed open, persisted and tried different ways (flash cards, taking notes, study groups etc.) to interact with what seemed at first like an intimidating abstract body of knowledge, the more manageable and even helpful the whole process felt.


Engage Tests By Studying,  Engage Loss By Creating Heart-Art

In the same way, the scariness of death can very gradually lose its menacing stature in our minds and hearts when we have taken the time to engage with it through meaningful ceremony.


Tiptoe Into Relationship With Loss Through Your Senses

I can only speak for myself in saying that putting in the time to plan and thoughtfully create an altar in the name of my loved ones that have passed on, is a physically concrete way of engaging with the abstract, overwhelming  and painful aspect of their death.


Making choices about the aesthetics of placement, colors, candles,  flowers, mementos, pictures and coveted foods is a gratifyingly  beautiful way to tiptoe towards the still hurting places within myself. In  the process of engaging with the beauty of color, taste, scent, sound and touch I prepared my heart for the closer than usual encounter with those losses.  For only that limited amount of time (and for now that limit time is all I can endure) I’ve stepped closer towards wholeness.


Make Your Beauty-Filled Attempt At Healing

There are an infinite variety of ways to draw from this ancient tradition and create your own. What I know so far from having adopted this annual ceremony and practiced it year after year, is that my growing  familiarity with it, has in a way allowed its gifts to take hold in me. I didn’t expect to feel happy after giving myself that time to take in the beauty of my altar… but I did. I felt lighter, much like I had had a loving encounter. The wealth of love in  the process of creating this altar was unexpected. The biggest feeling was that of gratitude towards all my loved in that the least I could do was commemorate their life in this way. Especially for my grandmother who was a beacon of so much faith, strength, hospitality and compassion.


As difficult as it is to approach this topic, when done in tiny steps, regularly, is equally powerful in it’s potential to provide healing.


“People living deeply have no fear of death.”

Anaïs Nin


Is there a ritual that has helped you heal from loss?


If you found this post helpful take a sec to like, share or comment below. Until next time thank you for stopping by and Feliz Dia De Los Muertos!


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