Strolling with an adorable dog through my neighborhood at twilight last night was an eerie journey into the macabre. The neighbors’ yards have been scary for weeks — there’s an election going on, after all. But now the creepy dial was cranked to 11.
From virtually every lawn, we were greeted with a light-hearted diorama of death. A skeleton swinging from the eaves. A fake cemetery headstone with a skull perched jauntily on top. An adorable grouping of whitened, bogus bones protruding from the ground and splayed across the wet grass.
I used to hate this annual nonsense, but not so much anymore. We live in a society of perpetual mortality-avoidance, and our staff-challenged long-term care profession is severely impacted by this pathological state of denial. If Halloween helps change that, call me an advocate.
To work in a nursing home is to think about the unthinkable and accept the unacceptable — which isn’t a great talent acquisition slogan. So if, on at least one day a year, death is actually seen, however obliquely, as part of life, it seems to me that’s a rare and good thing.
“Oh, but Gary!” you wail. “What about all that commercialism, pop-culture superficiality and non-recyclable plastic? What about diabetes and tooth decay?” It’s not that I don’t care about such things, but it’s a small price to pay for working just a tiny dose of a watered-down and candy-coated reality into our children’s formative training.
In some countries and traditions, people are actually encouraged to hang out in graveyards, or even with bodies as they decay, getting personal with death and learning to accept its inevitable hand. But around here, we avoid even saying the word, for fear of giving credence to the concept. So every little encounter with our ultimate impermanence, even if ever-so-brief and sanitized by the allure of candy and costumes, has to be a good thing.
Because if one kid on the quest for treats asks, “Mommy, why are there bones in that yard?” it might lead to a discussion of what happens when we die, and an admission that we do. A few more Halloweens might plant and water that tiniest of seeds, and with a little introspection and education that child might actually learn to embrace death rather than fear it. Eventually, he or she might even be willing to walk eagerly beside those who are facing it — by working in long-term care.
It’s ridiculous, of course, to suggest a child’s mindset can change just from walking past a few plastic bones on the way to some candy corn, but I’m all about baby steps. Halloween is an annual pebble that creates a tiny ripple, and every little assault on our fantastical narrative of immortality is a victory we should celebrate and nurture.
Because when mortality strike its knuckles on our door, it probably won’t be wearing such an adorable costume. But thanks to Halloween, maybe we’ll all be a little better prepared.
Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He’s been amusing, inspiring, informing and sometimes befuddling long-term care readers worldwide since the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.