Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Latino holiday with many cultural influences and expressions. Origins of the festival are deeply rooted in Aztec beliefs and tied to the goddess Mictecacihuatl, also known as the “Lady of the Dead.” Over the centuries, the holiday became more intertwined with Catholic traditions and was shortened from a month-long event to a three-day celebration. It typically begins on October 31 — All Hallows Eve — then continues on November 1, the day celebrated in the church as the Feast of All Saints. Día de los Muertos concludes on November 2, or All Souls Day.
Today the holiday is most often celebrated not as a religious day, but as a remembrance for all who have died, especially loved ones, friends and other acquaintances. Many families take picnics to the place where our family and friends are buried or we celebrate by making treasured family recipes.
For people in recovery from substance use disorders, alcohol is no longer apart of these celebrations. Yet, it may be inexorably linked to the memories of our loved ones, not often in a good way. Growing up in families where substance use occurs is difficult — sometimes there are not many good memories. Looking back, we may remember drunkenness, arguments, fighting, incarceration, and child neglect. As adults, in our addiction we may have repeated those patterns with our own families and loved ones. All of this makes it more difficult to remember our families of origin with celebrations on Día de los Muertos.
Still, there are many ways for people in recovery to join in on this cultural celebration. There is even a new “El Día De Los Muertos/Day of the Dead Toolkit” with videos and factsheets from the National Hispanic and Latino Addiction Technology Transfer Center. This resource is specifically appropriate to address the grief and loss we may have experienced growing up in a substance-using family.
One idea often used in treatment programs is building an “altar” or monument to recovery. Like Día De Los Muertos altars created to honor family, recovery altars commemorate things that are now gone in your life, such as denial, anger, and resentment; providing tributes to new values in recovery such as honesty and “giving back”. Holding onto our cultural traditions in this way helps to build positive memories of our new clean and sober lives, for ourselves and our children.