Gisel reads to her cousin Santiago at his graveside

Arriving in Oaxaca, Mexico for The Day of the Dead after 8 weeks filming in the USA it felt as if we didn’t quite know how this stage of our journey would fit in to our Good Grief Project or indeed if it was part of the same film.

We needn’t have worried.

Loss is loss and the death of a child seems to be no different here though the rituals that surround it are.

Take Sophia’s story.

We are in the courtyard of the house she shares with her daughter Yeri as she prepares the traditional ‘mole’ a chocolate and chile sauce that is such a part of the celebrations of  Day of the Dead.   Sophia talked to us about how this annual event in which Mexicans wait for their dead to come back, allows her to reflect on her sons short life as well as to accept his death.

Sophia with ingredients for her ‘mole’

A traditional and spiritual woman we were surprised and saddened to hear that she still believes she was responsible for her son’s death.  She was only 15 when she entered into an arranged marriage and her firstborn died 2 years later.  She was always treated badly by her in laws and is certain that her resulting anger had soured her breast milk and killed her baby.

But that was nearly 60 years ago and the much more recent loss of her grandson, her daughter Yeri’s only son Santiago in 2012 had brought back the trauma of her earlier tragedy.

Yeri and Santiago

Santiago was three years old when he pulled a drawer of a cabinet open which then fell on top of him. He died of his injuries two weeks later in hospital.  With her heart broken, Sophia and the rest of Yeri’s family took turns to sit and watch over her as they were scared she would take her own life.

Death and grief are frequent visitors in this family but they have strengthened relationships rather than weakening them.  Yeri talked of her mum Sophia as a matriarch without whom she couldn’t have coped.

As she places chocolate and treats on her alter for Santiago Yeri tells us tearfully that The Day of the Dead is such an important part of her healing.  The tradition reflects the belief that death is about life and is a natural part of the human experience. The dead are not lost forever and return to visit once a year.

She asks if I can feel Josh’s presence.  I feel deeply emotional and reply that he is in both my head and my heart and that we feel honoured to be here at this special time.  I also feel envious of her certainty that her son would be back if only for 24 hours and think how much I would give to spend just one more day with Josh.

Outside of her family Yeri didnt know how to talk about her grief and felt the need to join a support group for bereaved parents called Renacer something akin to The Compassionate Friends in the UK and USA.  Even in Mexico with the exception  of the celebrations of Day of the Dead there is a social taboo and discomfort about child death.

Marlen in the market

It was at Renacer that Yeri met Marlene and Juan who lost their only child Sebastian in 2007. They became close friends. Sebastian had died age 8 after being diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a baby.  He had suffered terribly, as they had.  His organs failed and his lungs collapsed and though shattered and distraught when he died they both felt relief that he no longer had to suffer so terribly.

Juan and Marlane talked to us about the difficulties in their marriage. She had closed down, began hearing voices and taken to her bed. She was sedated for 20 days under threat of being sectioned.

Juan returned to work and the chasm between them widened until they realised they needed to do something to save their marriage. It was at this point that they had joined Renacer where they gained a perspective on how husbands and wives grieve differently. No different than for bereaved parents in the UK.

As they too prepared their alter for their son Sebastian Jimmy and I caught each others gaze as they invited us to place a photo of Josh on their alter.  Their wish to include us in this ritual seemed to matter as much to them as it did to us.

While Juan hugged her he told us that all relationships need to be worked on and that theirs would surely have collapsed if they hadn’t faced their difficulties.

Relatives started  arriving  at their door.   Sebastian’s cousins knelt on the floor laying a trail of petals.  The scent of the marigolds would help him find his way home for the short 24 hour reunion.

I asked Marlene how she felt…”muy content……happy and excited”

laying trail

Juan lights the ‘copal’ incense that will clear the air for the ‘angelitos’ to return

That evening we were invited to attend Renacer where we were embraced wholeheartedly as Oaxaca partied around us, sharing tears, memories and a lot of laughter with other bereaved parents and siblings.

As we added photos of all 30 children we had brought from the UK to the altar,  Cezar a sibling who had lost 2 sisters in a car crash and nearly died himself,  read out all their names alongside the Mexican dead.

So many stories of lost futures and broken hearts healed through ritual, time and most importantly peer support. The underlying belief here that you don’t get over the death of your child but that you do learn to live with it, that there is no such thing as closure and that ritual helps.

No surprises there!


The Renacer Altar

November 2015

Yeri paints Gisel’s face

Juan and Marlen on the way to their son’s grave


To find out about Renacer click here: Renacer

To find out about The Compassionate Friends click here:

To find out about the history of the Day of the Dead click here:


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