OP-ED: I'm Not Mexican, But Here's Why Day of the Dead Has Become My Favorite Holiday

My ofrenda honoring my late husband Byard from 2020 | Source: Samantha Bridge​​

Death. It will come to all of us and yet most of us live in denial of its existence. 

Some hide from it, ignore it, and perhaps even try to forget those who it has touched. 

Others celebrate and embrace death. 

This is why I love Día de Los Muertos. A tradition which has given me the chance to celebrate my loved ones who have passed away and to also find some peace in death. 

Up until recently I had no real reason to build an ofrenda

Sure, my grandparents had all died but that felt to be in the natural order of life.

Our wedding day January 5, 2013. | Source: Samantha Bridge​​

Then in 2015, my husband, Byard, was diagnosed with a very rare and aggressive type of testicular cancer at the young age of 28. 

One week later, we found out we were expecting our first child. 

Our lives were so full of joy, yet we were in constant crisis as the cancer kept coming back month after month, treatment after treatment.

My ofrenda honoring my late husband Byard from 2020 | Source: Samantha Bridge​​

My brave Byard fought death off for almost two years. 

He passed away in May 2017––only a few days before our son’s first birthday. His death brought me some relief that at least he was no longer suffering, but it was tragic. 

It still is tragic. 

My son will never really know his father. He will only know him through the memories and stories of his father’s loved ones who are left behind.

How I Fell in Love with Mexican Culture

Being an artist, I thought building an ofrenda would be an installation to celebrate my husband. 

I have always loved Latin culture, particularly Mexican culture. 

Growing up, my parents wanted to expose me to as much of the world, art, food and life that they could. So instead of watching Nickelodeon, I grew up watching a constant stream of foreign films. 

One of my favorites was Like Water for Chocolate. My mom bought the book and spent hours preparing chiles en nogada.

I was hooked. 

There is so much simple beauty and soul in Mexican culture––the food, the vibrant colors, the holidays and celebration. The way of life.

My first ofrenda honoring my late husband from 2019. | Source: Samantha Bridge​​

Creating My First Ofrenda

Last year, I created my first ofrenda to honor my husband. It was small, but beyond beautiful.

I invited my in-laws, we made Byard’s favorite foods and enjoyed a night together remembering all the things he loved. 

At the end of the night, when everyone had gone home, I sat in silence staring at the ofrenda, mesmerized. It was quiet. The room was lit only by the candles on the altar. 

The smell of burning incense filled the air. The photographs of my loved ones were brought to life by the light and shadow dancing around their faces as they looked back at me.

It was simply magical. 

Kayaking on our honeymoon in Costa Rica, January 2013. | Source: Samantha Bridge​​

Why I Choose to Celebrate Day of the Dead

Once I became a widow, I realized how uncomfortable death can be in our culture.

Many people don’t know what to say and choose to say nothing, which is worse than saying the wrong thing. 

The funeral home where I said goodbye to Byard’s body was quiet and cold––no warmth, no incense, no music. 

In hindsight, I wish I could have changed that. I became intrigued with how we deal with death and the rituals surrounding it. 

I was so inspired by Mexican folk art that I started creating my own type of shadowboxes and nichos dedicated to Byard. 

I then took that reverence one step further and began hosting Day of the Dead to honor my husband; celebrating everything he loved and who he was––not the tragedy of his cancer and death at a young age. 

Of course we always remember his birthday, the day he was diagnosed, the day he died, but the truth is, most of these days remind me of how short his life was and are wrapped in heartache. 

Day of the Dead provides a unique outlet to celebrate the full life he led.

The day our son Byard IV was born. May 5, 2016. | Source: Samantha Bridge​​

Remembering My Husband Byard

In the 10 years we had together, we traveled around the world.  He was always up for a new adventure, new foods, road trips.

He loved life and could never get enough. We would come home from a vacation abroad and he would be talking about the next one!

Before he died, we had a conversation about how full our lives were and how lucky we were to know we could leave this life behind feeling complete. 

A personal portrait | Photography By: Christy McMahon owner of Studio Luminoso, July 2020​​

Today, I am Grappling With Feelings of Death

Now I am the one catching a glimpse of death and facing those feelings in a much more intimate way than I did as a caregiver. 

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was diagnosed with breast cancer––just three years after Byard died. 

I couldn’t believe it: after all I had been through, this was happening to me. But why not me? 

Death is a part of life, after all.  

My diagnosis has enabled me to let go of so much of the grief I was holding. 

Once again, I am learning the lesson that this life is temporary and our time here is precious. We must seize the day!

These portraits, of me and my son, were taken right before I started chemotherapy, July, 2020 | Photography By: Christy McMahon of Studio Luminoso ​​

Why Accepting Death Has Allowed Me to Live More Purposefully

Attempting to accept death is freeing and I am living more purposefully. 

Perhaps this is what lies at the heart of Day of the Dead––bringing beauty, love, and celebration to the forefront; making death approachable, rather than sweeping it under the rug and burying it deep down inside. 

Day of the Dead is now my favorite holiday, and I hope one day––when my cancer is gone and COVID is behind us––I can experience it’s beauty in Mexico firsthand.

Until then, I will strive to bring as much magic, love, and joy to my life as my ofrenda and Day of the Dead have brought me.

“If nothing saves us from death, at least love should save us from life,” - Pablo Neruda

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About the Author

Samantha Bridge

Artist, adventurer, mother, and widow. A former sculpture major and BFA recipient from Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Arts and marketing manager for Garces Group. Her art is inspired by the colors, sights, and tastes of her many travels while more recently reflecting the tragic death of her husband. Her current mission is raising her 4 year old son while slaying the dragon of cancer, all the while continuing to experience the beauty of life. Though Carolina born, she lives out her one wild and precious life in Philadelphia with her son, Byard IV.

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