Day of the Dead, Dementia, and My Dad

How do we celebrate Día de los Muertos, the celebration of life and death when a loved one hovers on the edge of eternity, more in the next life than in this one? When the vibrant life once lived next to me on “comfort care” will soon be replaced with as many colorful memories as there soon will be memorial flowers. 

My situation, losing my father is not unique nor is the dementia that has taken him from my family a memory at a time. There is no shame in grief and only beauty to be found in the culturally rich traditions of Día de los Muertos. Yet, the scathing stigma surrounding his mental illness made my mother a shut-in right along with my father as his mental acuity waned, and his once brilliant mind struggled to follow plot lines in TV sitcoms. Why is there such a taboo about mental illness to the point that it’s under-funded, under-utilized and the public suffers from a lack of awareness? Unfortunately those who suffer the most are the loved ones and the sufferer him or herself, and often in silence. 

The silence is deafening. The fears of the mentally ill and those who love them are drowned out by the ignorance and ingrained prejudice of an often unenlightened society. Ignorance is certainly not bliss and is no excuse, especially when it comes to willfully ignoring the sickness of another human being in pain just because you can’t see it or are uncomfortable with it. Mental illness takes many forms, most not as severe as dementia, but many people including myself battle with anxiety and depression and don’t seek treatment because of the stigma attached to mental illness.

If I, a college educated professional hesitates to admit that I can’t just think, pray or exercise my way out of anxiety and depression, how much more reluctant have I been over the years to really unburden myself of my fears, concerns and sense of loss throughout my father’s struggle? Many people know my dad has dementia, few know how I really feel about it, and few have asked. Why is that? Why have the majority of my mom’s friends drifted away as my dad’s gradually lost his grasp on reality? Did they stop caring? NO! They retreated to a comfortable distance as my mom retreated into caretaker mode and slowly lost herself too.

To truly celebrate life and death, let’s celebrate the living even while they’re on their journey towards death; whatever path that takes. Let’s demonstrate the depth of our character by being courageously quiet even in the uncomfortable silences just by being present. 

Life is indeed as beautiful as the remembrances of Día de los Muertos. I argue that there are just as many rich hues along the journey to eternity.

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Alicia Christiansen

Alicia Christiansen

Alicia Christiansen is the first college graduate in her military family and the only special education teacher to ever receive the Key to the District where she has taught special needs students for over 16 years. Since she was once a Special Education student in the district where she teaches, she feels that she can not only relate to the challenges within the population, yet also has added insight into the community where her students reside. Beyond instructing, encouraging and molding her students, she feels part of her job outside the walls of her class is dispelling the many misconceptions about special needs students. Contributing to La Comadre will provide her an additional avenue in assisting fellow educators, parents and families of Special Education students in the varied related topics that may seem overwhelming to comprehend often due to conflicting or misinformation. Alicia believes ultimately a teacher’s job is to forge a bond with the family as she helps their child build a bridge to the future.

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