Passages, Mourning and Halloween

Sean At 18  We don’t have many pictures of him


Ever since my younger brother died in 2008, Halloween has been a difficult season for me.  We don’t know his exact death date.  He had schizophrenia and was often uncommunicative for weeks at a time.  His last call on his cell phone record was October 25th.  He wasn’t found until November 11th.  He was 44 years old.  He lived alone. Even though his family, especially my mother and older sister, tried very hard to help him out, he resisted and preferred a life of isolation.  We knew not to push him too hard to do anything.  At one point, he disappeared for about 13 years.  He resurfaced 4 years before his death.
He was very strong-minded for a man who heard paranoid voices in his head since he was a teenager. He worked as an electrician.  He went to work and went home.  He had a perception of himself as being very small and was always drinking protein powder and lifting weights.  I asked him one time if he ever wanted to socialize more.  “If I go straight home, I stay out of trouble.”
My brother was scary.  Even though he thought he was small, he was about 6’2” and built like a truck, broad and muscular.  He always wore several layers of clothes to cover up how small he thought he was.  He was quiet most of the time, but if you ever heard one of his episodes where he would start responding to the voices, start talking about how the people in the television were out to kill him and how one day he would get back at all the people who had hurt him, you would be more than justified at fearing him.
He had a very difficult childhood.  My father was abusive and both my parents were alcoholics.  But my brother had a enough self discipline to maintain a job without anyone thinking he was anything other than weird for being so quiet and never socializing.
We don’t know for sure what he died of.  He was sick with the flu and my sister took him medicine and begged him to go to a doctor, but he was paranoid of doctors.  When they found him, one of the men who collected his body called us and told us to go to the apartment before the hazardous-materials team got there.  My brother had left money strewn all around the apartment.  When he came home from work, he’d just throw his cash out of his pockets as if it were some kind of contaminant.
One of the main worries we had was how we were going to afford bury him.  We all were living from paycheck to paycheck.  My mom was on Social Security and getting less than $600 a month.
My two sisters and my brother-in-law and I found enough money in my brother’s apartment to cover the burial expenses.  It was such a sad sojourn, that act of hunting and gathering. We wore face masks.  He lived a spartan life.  Weights in the living room.  A mattress on the floor.  A table to eat at.  The smell of decay was sharp and thick.  We saw where he was died. We collected his few personal things and the money hidden everywhere.  There was enough to pay for the burial.
It was traumatizing, but it showed me how hard my brother worked to maintain a sense of sanity and to not bother anyone.  It  also ingrained in me a profound respect for the human body, for decay, for the passage we all make from physical matter to spiritual beings.
I mourned his death, but more so, I mourned his illness that isolated him so much. That is what haunts me.  Later we found out he had almost $80,000. in his bank account.  He never spent money outside of what he needed.  The money left was a gift to a family who he never really let close to him, but we would have much rather him have spent it on getting mental help.
Halloween used to be a favorite time, and I loved the whole macabre celebration.  Now I feel removed from it.  It’s a more sacred time and I don’t like seeing the glorification of insanity, wounds and zombies.
Each year since his death, though, I get a little more light-hearted about it. He has helped.  He visits me in my dreams.  When he was young he always played guitar and was quite good at it.  After he got ill, he wrote music with square notes and mathematical formulas that sounded very discordant.  In my dreams, he always has a guitar and is surrounded by melodies like bird songs.
Living around children helps me get through Halloween, too.  I give out candy.  Sometimes I wear a witch hat.  I still love jack-o-lanterns.  But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go to a haunted house or participate in a zombie fest.  And sometimes seeing a particularly graphic costume will send me spiraling into grief.  But it isn’t always a costume that can set me to mourning.
I began to sink into depression over my brother a few days ago.  On the way home from the library, while I waited for the bus, a very dirty and skinny man came to wait with me.  He was muttering and talking to himself, gesturing and making pointed comments in some language of his own.  I began to think of the sorry state of mental health care in our abundant country and the terrible time we had trying to get help for my brother.
When I got home, I started drawing a face and I began a few hours of very passionate paint splattering and mourning.  I realized I was trying to draw my brother.  I’d been trying to do an homage to him since he died, but never could bring myself to it.


I started mourning in full, crying, drawing, erasing, crying, painting.  I got out almost all my art supplies and even my sand paper — putting on color, sanding it off.   I knew I’d gone a little off kilter, but it felt okay.  Sometimes madness is the only possible response.
Finally a face stared back at me.  With a subtle grin.  My brother emerged from all that chaos to say, I think, Lighten up.  And I did.
Autumn Visit
I told a friend about my brother’s death.  She is in her 30s and has 3 young children. She is celebrating the Day of the Dead in addition to Halloween.  She invited me to a Sugar Skull event on next Tuesday, and I felt like I could get through that.  I tried to remember a favorite food of my brother, but he really only ate to build up his body.  I will make a sugar skull for him anyway.
Today, I worked on the homage painting that has been in the back of my mind for the last 5 years.  Just a simple watercolor of him flying off to a saner, more sacred place.  I drew him with an Oud-like instrument, the first guitar invented.  There’s some gold glazing that doesn’t show up in the scan of the painting.
I know I will carry  love and confusion throughout my life.  Mourning is something we must do if we are to feel love and compassion.  If we are to keep our loved ones close in our hearts.
Soon, I’ll build a little altar for the Day of the Dead – for my brother, for my mother, for my grandmother, for all the souls that have struggled through this life and made it to the other side.  I pray they continue to haunt me, trouble and inspire me, until I join them in the great mystery beyond life.

17 thoughts on “Passages, Mourning and Halloween

  1. I look forward to seeing your altar for your now gone family. It helps to do that. I build one every year for my Father, Step-mother, my family pet members and especially for my SON Val. I am posting mine on Friday for PPF on the 1st or 2nd of November. Please stop by and I so look forward to yours. Your drawings are well done with lots of love it seems. Thank you for sharing this very intense post. Take care and do be happy.

  2. I've moved so often in the past 10 years, it's been hard to think about things like altars, so I'm grateful to be settled and can make some sacred space. I look forward to seeing your altar. Thanks for your comments and I am happy. Happiness carries sadness, as we all know in one way or another.

  3. Oh Joy, I never knew about this part of your life. My heart is breaking for you – I am so very sorry for your poor brother and for you. Glad to see though, that even in your down, dark sad place you turned to art, and that your bro showed up to guide it and you toward the light. Will be thinking of you.
    ps – it's Tatum!

  4. Hi Tatum! Thanks so much for your kind thoughts. I'm very fortunate to have art to help guide me and help me understand what isn't really understandable. Broken hearts gain strength. Much love!

  5. My words do not count.They are musical notes that I started with Pastels tonight! I have no balm. No band aid to sadness. Learn how to make those sugar treats. There is soooo much more about “Dia de Muerto”! Make you find healing xxx ivy

  6. Well, I wondered what shenanigans Tatum and you were up to :). But thank you again for your comments. It's amazing how art is always about finding and preserving light. Sometimes the light shines more brightly and in unexpected ways — that's why I love it.

  7. Thanks. Your words do count. Sadness brings us wisdom and healing is a process. I look forward to Dia De Muerto sugar treats and symbolically feeding my ancestors' souls as well as my own.

  8. Joy what a beautiful,honest and raw post. I'm so sorry to hear of the difficulties your brother suffered in his too short life and the sadness you feel at being unable to help him in life. You have written beautifully and from the heart and it is a wonderful tribute to your brother. It seems that your art had been cathartic and it turned out really great.

  9. Both looking at and creating art has always been a great pleasure in my life. It helps our powers of observation and our appreciation of beauty and soothes us when life seems incomprehensible. Thanks for your comment and your art.

  10. This is such a wonderful post. This disease runs in my family as well. I can understand why halloween is so tough on you. I find that when you lose someone it is good to share their memories with others. It keeps their memory alive and you did this with this post. I can only imagine how hard this post was to write. Thank you so much for this. I hope that posting this, though it was difficult, did a bit to help your spirits.

  11. It did lift my spirits and connected me with others who have similar experiences. I think we all feel a bit reluctant to share our sad stories, but I also feel that we are given certain experiences to share. I am not the only one who has this disease in my family, as you know, and I hope it normalizes it a little more when I share the story. Thanks for your encouragement and I wish you peace.

  12. This is a very touching testimonial about your brother, who is now an angel visiting you in your dreams. I believe that when we pass away to Heaven to meet our Lord and creator, we are cleansed and healed. Therefore, I feel your brother is as happy and carefree as you've depicted him in your beautiful artwork. He is probably playing his guitar gloriously as I type these words. May your memorial altar for your family members bring you the peace of knowing that they are in eternal rest, as well as the joy of knowing you'll eventually reunite with them.

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