Grief at Halloween: It’s Spooky Scary

I’m just going to say it, I don’t love Halloween. Please don’t be mad at me and TP my house or anything.

I know many of you love Halloween and I support you in that, but it’s just not for me…not anymore. I have my rational reasons – for instance, I’m bad at putting together Halloween costumes, I’m legit scared of scary movies, and one time a monster scratched me in a haunted house.

And I have other non-grinchy reasons as well. As some of you know, my mom died in late October and so this time of year is always a little rough for me. I tend to feel emotional and distracted and, inevitably, Halloween always manages to sneak up on me (and I don’t mean in a fun, scary sort of way).

I’m sure some of you can relate to my Halloween apathy.  Or perhaps you’re more ambivalent…or anxious…or some other ‘A’ adjective.  My point is, holidays can be difficult after the death of a loved one.  Though we often think of major holidays as being the most difficult, we shouldn’t underestimate the potential impact of traditions and grief triggers surrounding days like Halloween.

If Halloween is difficult for you, it’s probably for reasons specific to you and your loved one.  However, we’d like to discuss a few general reasons why Halloween might be tough for some grieving individuals.

You have bittersweet memories of the past:

Annual events, traditions, and holiday are rife with memories of the past.  This year inevitably reminds you of last year and years before that. You may find yourself reflecting on years when your loved one(s) were alive, years when things seemed happier or simpler, or even years when things were very difficult.

After a loss, memories of the past gain new dimension.  A memory that at one point was remembered as purely happy can take on shades of sadness when it includes a person, place or time that’s gone from our physical reality. So whether the memory is happy or sad, both can cause you to feel pain.

Does this mean you should avoid all memories of the past? No, definitely not. You lose far too much when you lock away all your memories, whether they’re happy, sad, or mundane.  Memory can be an immense source of comfort and connection, not just in grief, but in life. Happiness with a side of sadness is just something you have to get used to after a loved one dies.

Your loved one was a baby, child, or adolescent when they died:

If your loved one was a child when they died, then not only might you be struggling with memories and losses related to the past, but you may also be grieving losses related to holidays they won’t get to celebrate and experiences you won’t get to share. For example, you might be consumed with thoughts about how old they would be and who or what they would want to dress up as. 

Unfortunately, Halloween grief triggers are very difficult to avoid. There are parties at school and work, decorations throughout your neighborhood, entire sections of your grocery store dedicated to candy and costumes, and on Halloween, the trick or treaters are out in full force.  

If Halloween is proving to be especially difficult for you this year, schedule a little extra self-care time throughout the week.  And if you think it will be too difficult to hand out candy on Halloween night, plan to get out of the house by going to dinner, a movie, or some other non-Halloween related activity.

Halloween symbols are bothering you or are distressing someone in your life:

Spirits, ghosts, tombstones, skeletons and other reminders of death are everywhere during October. Adults may simply find it difficult to look at these symbols in the harmless and playful way they once did.  While children, especially those struggling with questions like – “What happens to you after you die?”, “What happens to your body?, “Are ghosts real?” – may find these images downright scary. 

If you are supporting a young child who is grieving, you may want to check in with them about how they are feeling about Halloween.  Here are support resources for talking to grieving kids about Halloween from the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement and from the Dougy Center.

You’re just not that into it:

Halloween is a pretty playful holiday. Some people really get into it. Maybe you even used to get into it, but this year you’re feeling kind of ‘meh’.  Grief takes a lot out of you and, in such times, you may find you need to conserve your limited amounts of energy and enthusiasm.

So here are the options as I see them

  • Participate with simplicity and support: You may not have the option to skip Halloween because you have children in your care, your work requires you to participate, or for some other reason. If this is the case, try to keep things simple. Embrace store-bought costumes or maybe just go as a grieving person, people tend to find that very scary (I wish I were kidding) 🙂 And don’t forget to ask for support from family and friends. 
  • Skip it (if you have the option): Leave the decorations in their boxes and go to a movie on Halloween instead. Take comfort in the thought that maybe next year you’ll feel more up to it (or maybe not, and that’s okay).

What are you afraid of this Halloween? I’m afraid you won’t subscribe to receive posts straight to your email inbox.

November 2, 2018

19 responses on "Grief at Halloween: It's Spooky Scary"

  1. My was with my ex-partner for 3 years, we broke up in 2015. The last time I celebrated halloween was in 2014, where we both planned and dressed up as Mexican Sugar skulls. Halloween was special to us and we always made it a big thing. In July 2018, he passed away. Our breakup in 2015 was traumatic, and when we passed away in 2018 I still hadn’t grieved the loss of our relationship. His death tore my heat open and I still haven’t managed to start grieving. I’ve just put it in the back of my mind, unable to cope with the feleings.

    I didn’t know this Halloween would be a trigger for me… Until this week i was hit with a wave of anxiety, fear and sadness. I didn’t understand it and I didn’t even relate to his death. Tonight I was about to leave to go to Halloween party with friends, and I just broke down in tears. I couldn’t do it.

    Grieving an ex-partner is such a process.

  2. Halloween features can surprise and frighten with their special atmosphere and thematic symbols. This is a great opportunity to find a suitable costume character.

  3. Although not exactly Halloween, I haven’t allowed my 5 year old daughter to see the movie, Coco. My son died when he was 16, and I had my daughter two years later. She has spent more time at a cemetery than any 5 year old should, and I don’t want to confuse her. We can’t interact with the dead. They don’t visit us. We can’t visit them, and I think understanding death is a hard enough concept for anyone (I still can’t believe I will never speak to or touch or laugh with my son again. How can that be?) let alone a child. She thinks its unfair, and maybe I am making too big of a deal out of it, but for the foreseeable future, we are skipping Coco.

  4. October 30 marks 46 years since my best friend was hit and killed by a hit and run driver as we were walking down the road. For the first couple of decades, I absolutely hated Hallowe’en. No one and nothing could make me partake in any of the festivities. Eventually, time softened those harsh feelings, but I still don’t really care for that day. To add to the holiday burden, my dad died at Thanksgiving 2009 and my mom on Christmas Day 2005. Sooo, holidays really aren’t my thing anymore, but I don’t sink into a funk like I did in the 70s and 80s. In many ways, my own grief experience has provided valuable insight into my job as the bereavement coordinator for hospice, so I actually have taken my losses and turned them into something that hopefully provides some healing for others.

    • Isn’t it a blessing when we can take our losses and our grief and use it to help others. My losses and grief led me to become a Grief Counselor. I imagine that you use your unique experiences to help others grieve their losses.

  5. I lost my boyfriend, my love, best friend and soulmate last year on Halloween morning. He was driving to work and was hit head on in a high speed crash by a guy who fell asleep while driving. He was trapped in the car for over an hour before being rescued, he hung on for so long until they took him out of the car and his aorta ruptured. We were going to hand out candy that night. This year has been indescriable hell. I will forever hate Halloween, I have to put on a happy face for my 2 grandkids tho. I just dread that day…a year! I’m heartbroken still..

  6. My husband and I had never spent a week at the beach. Halloween was my favorite. Ocean Lakes at Myrtle Beach has the best Halloween activities so I rented a house and off we went. It poured rain for the first two days and there was a king tide. David’s chest was hurting but he insisted that he had pulled a muscle from carrying around his fishing equipment. So our week was not perfect with him in pain. I begged him to go to the hospital but he refused. Our week ended and we drove home to North Carolina in a driving rain and flooding conditions. That was on Sunday. Monday night he called me from work and needed to go to the hospital. I drove him to a local hospital and he was having a heart attack. He was transferred to Levine’s in Charlotte, NC. He underwent surgery to place stents in his veins and heart. On Thursday they sent him home. Then early Saturday morning, November 7, 2015 I heard him stop breathing. I jumped up screaming, called 911 and began CPR. Three of David’s fellow Rescue Squad members came charging in to take over CPR, electric shock, drugs injected into his heart but he was gone. I will never see Halloween as my favorite holiday again. Widowmaker heart attack.

  7. I hate October ,I hate Halloween !!!!!
    I lost my little girl on the 25th she was only two years old .
    I just want it to be over!
    She would be 5 years old now An would love to go get all the candy she could

  8. From the non-human side of the pond, I don’t like the reminders of Halloweens past because once our beloved feline fur-son was gone, I couldn’t stomach handing out candy at the door anymore. He was the fearless one of our two (while his sibling sister would hide upstairs until the noise of doorbells and children was all done), so would accompany me to the door, perched atop my shoulder and arm. Me playing “human tree” for our furkids was a normal part of our days together, but the children got a big kick out of it, exclaiming to their parents, “LOOK, mom/dad!!! It’s a BLACK CAT on that lady’s arm!!!” I remember being so surprised at *their* surprise the first time this happened, because to me it wasn’t anything unusual at all! (didn’t ALL cats ride around like this?!) So our furboy was a star attraction, and I, his adoring pet parent, was always so delighted that his presence seemed way more exciting for these kids than were any decorations or candy.

    His last Halloween with us was different though, as he just wasn’t interested. I was unaware at the time that the cancer that would later take his life was already in his system. After we lost him, and since his sister had never cared for all that human traffic anyway, we began a new tradition of unplugging the doorbell, going dark, and quietly having our dinners while watching TV, with our fur-daughter in my lap, until it was over. Once we lost her too, there were a couple of attempts to participate (one dance, candy stuff), but I still hated it. It still hurts, and probably always will, so still a big NOPE to Halloween. All I do now is send a black cat e-greeting to some family and friends, in honour of my ‘boy’s’ holiday.

  9. Good post, but one sticky point for me on your comment “Embrace store-bought costumes or maybe just go as a grieving person, people tend to find that very scary “. I wonder if a grieving person would really want to go trick or treat disguised as a “grieving person.” Any thoughts anyone from anyone in the throes of grief?

    • Astrid, yes, I’d forgotten to add a comment about that line! Since it’s been many years for me since my worst losses, I actually rather enjoyed that idea (even though we don’t go to any costume parties), partly because I’m a fan of wry ‘humour’ and people ARE very scared of both grief and the grieving, it’s very creative, and mainly, it could possibly open up some really deep conversations if you were asked “why?!,” as I’m sure you would be! Any chance to enlighten others about the topic and help undo the western world’s plague-like avoidance of grief, is one I would VERY much welcome…even if — or maybe *especially* — if some tears were able to be shed and shared as a result. As quoted, “Grief shared is grief diminished”– Rabbi Grollman. But I don’t think I’d suggest it for anyone whose grief is still too fresh.

    • Astrid, I like the idea of going disguised as a grieving person, but what does that look like? Some cultures tear a piece of their clothing, others dress in “sackcloth and ashes”. The tradition of dressing up started, I think, as dressing up to look like our ancestors in their honor. This made complete sense because the following day is All Saints Day, and it was a good excuse to have a party. I wish I could send you my favorite Halloween photo. My daughter was maybe four or five, if that old. My mother made a white “satin” gown and cape trimmed with white sparkly Christmas tree garland. And then I was the fortunate soul who had to apply the makeup (shudder!). For some reason my daughter wanted to go as a “little, frozen dead girl”. I must say that it turned out realistic looking in an unreal way if I do say so myself, but I remember telling her that it was going to give me nightmares. There was even this goo to put in her hair to resemble icicles. So I took her to a neighborhood and watched from a distance as she ran from house to house, cape flowing, an unearthly ghostly figure in the twilight under the street lights. Finally I was standing at the porch of a woman’s house where she waited with the bowl of candy for the kiddies. As my daughter ran across the yard, up the steps and stood in front of the woman, I watched the woman’s delighted smile and heard her say “What a pretty little . . .” and then her facial expression turned to one of horror as she saw my daughter’s face and finished ” . . . uh, little girl”. It was hilarious!
      Two years ago I met the funeral director to make arrangements for my daughter’s service. She was 21 and died suddenly. Her body had been returned from the mandatory autopsy, and I had been struggling with whether or not I wanted to see her one last time. I was the one who found her body that day. The director advised me against it saying that I didn’t want to see her “that way”. I said, “you’re right. she probably looks like this” and I pulled out my phone with the photo of that picture I had taken years before of the little frozen dead girl. I don’t know how we managed to do it, but we all burst out laughing. So yes, I am in the “throes” of grief and always will be. But I think that if I had to dress up this year, it would be as a big frozen dead mother – or maybe a rabbit or a cat – or maybe as “The Monster in the Darkness” from OOTS (she won a trophy that year for best costume, and she made it herself! She was 16.) Lots of good memories, but I’d have to change the tradition and dress to honor my descendant instead of my ancestor.

    • Ha, yeah Astrid- our grief humor doesn’t always strike a cord for everyone 😉 Though our grief does have a tendency to scare MANY people, it might not be the *best* costume choice!

  10. My brother moved in with me to die and he decided that he wanted to go to NYC the day before Halloween to a play he had always wanted to see. I took him and he was so sick but insisted we go to a 5 star restaurant even though he couldn’t eat. It was bittersweet but he loved NYC so much. I just remember that trip now and don’t care about Halloween. He was gone a month later.

  11. 100% agree.
    My son died in Nov-two days before Thanksgiving. From Oct to Dec I am in a trance.
    I live in a neighborhood that goes insane and crazy on Halloween. Kids come from all the neighboring cities, and everybody decorates.
    Year One ;lights out hide upstairs until the 1200 ghouls & goblins are off the streets.
    Year Two: Left the state
    Year Three: Surrendered-handed out candy until 8:00 pM-ran out, lights out and hid.
    Year Four: Had my sons girlfriend give out candy, she is from another country and found it fascinating.
    Year Five: I am dreading it, and actually anxious about it. I stocked up with 2000 pieces, decorated some ( my son works for Disney, so lucky me, I got some leftover Disneyland decorations ) I will sit on my porch and do my best, but I think I am throwing in the Halloween sacrifice in the future.

  12. Agree, agree! However, for many simply turning off the lights and sitting in the dark is the option chosen… this, as well, may not be the healthiest. Plan to go out to dinner (an adult restaurant) with a friend… as shared, go to a movie with a friend, in other words make different memories. Having said that, know that it’s okay to sit alone in the dark once in a while if you need the quiet, you need the ‘space’… get to know yourself and your ‘thresholds, so that you’re ‘aware’ of the times when you can/should be alone and the times when you can/should be with friends or family. But above all, in agreement with Rea, know that it’s okay to step away from a holiday… and when you’re ready, it’s okay to create new holiday traditions… thanks, Rea… great thoughts…

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