Life Lessons from Haunted Places

I have always loved Halloween. Drew and I both did. We were always sure to find the biggest and best haunted houses to go to each year. We spent weeks on our costumes, making everything by hand. We’d go out to parties in character and win costume contests, and enjoy the whole experience of it all. Since his death, each year, I think I have come to love and appreciate this holiday even more deeply.

The very first Halloween came just 4 months after his death. I was a wreck. Still in shock. Could barely function at all. And though there was no costume-making that year, I was determined not to miss one thing: haunted houses. So I planned to go with a girlfriend of mine, to a new one, near the town I had moved to after he died. Doing this somewhere new was extremely helpful. I don’t think I could have gone back to one of the haunted houses he and I had visited. So changing this up was crucial to carrying the tradition on.

When my friend and I entered through that dark and unknown first door… something really incredible happened. For the 20 minutes or so we were inside, I was not a widow. I was just a person running scared and laughing through a haunted house. That’s right, laughing! With my good friend by my side, and scares at every turn, I found myself laughing deep and full. I found myself feeling… alive. As we came bolting out the exit, we were both so full of electric energy, that euphoric adrenaline that all the sights and sounds and crazy lights and monsters gives you. 

It was one of the first things after his death that made me laugh out loud, and made me realize I could still feel joy, and still enjoy things. It also taught me that I could actually still get lost in a good way, lost in the moment. That was so huge for me. I had proof that just maybe, I was going to be okay. Just maybe, I really could keep going.

I have looked at haunted houses differently ever since that day. For me, they are much more than a silly Halloween tradition. They are a medicine to my soul. A place I go each year to remember those lessons from that first, most fragile year. Because, as I re-enter life more fully now, I find it easier to get bogged down in other things too. I find myself stressing about things that don’t matter, and worrying when it won’t change a thing. So in a way, haunted houses are my annual jump-start, a ritual to remind myself to let go of all the stress and worry and just be in the moment. A reminder of the joy that is still possible, even after all this pain. A way to tell myself it’s okay to be a kid again, and to play. A reminder to put myself into situations where I can stop wearing the label of “widow” for a few moments and just be me, being me.

It probably seems weird so some people to find so much meaning in a haunted house. I know a lot of folks don’t even like them. But to me, there is a real magic about it. It’s more than just a good scare. It’s a wonderfully creative exchange between you and these actors. You act scared, and show it, and they give you a good scare. All the while, you know, it is just a game, and you can feel secure in that. In that moment, you and this other person are having an exchange that is unlike any other you have on a daily basis. It’s in your face, it’s expressive, it’s raw, and even though it’s make believe, it is also genuine underneath. A genuine joy being exchanged between you both. There is a creative force to it too. All the imagination that goes into making these scary mansions and haunted schoolhouses… to me, they are places where imagination runs wild and free. Nothing is too big or too outlandish for this scene. They are places where we can all be kids again. And in dealing with my grief, I have found it so crucial to embrace being a kid again to lighten the load.

Last year was the first since his death that I didn’t make it to a haunted house, due to the move up to Ohio falling around this time of year. This year though, I was not about to let it pass me by. So a few weeks ago, Mike and I drove an hour or so south to go to the haunted house. I was looking so forward to that old familiar in-the-moment experience that I love so much, but also to something else. One of my best girlfriends happened to be in Ohio visiting family, and was able to meet us and go to the haunted house too.

There were two amazing things about this. One, she was meeting Mike for the first time, and has known me all the years I was with Drew. And two, the last time she, Drew and I spent time together… we also went to a haunted house.

It was so incredibly full-circle, to be standing there in line, watching these two people from different chapters of my life talking. And knowing the last time I did this, was with Drew. Oddly, it didn’t feel sad or bittersweet at all. In fact, it felt just right. Like how it was supposed to happen. It even felt a little bit like Drew had a hand in it. Like he was happy.

The haunted house was everything we’d hoped for and more, and for the time we were inside, I felt that same incredible feeling… of being lost in the joy of the moment. It was also a new kind of experience, because it was the first time since Drew died that I had a new man to go out into the darkness before me. It has taken so long and so much hard painful healing to get to here, but finally it is starting to feel like not every single new thing is a painful reminder. It’s starting to feel like everything is right again, in a new way, and that Drew is a part of it each day. He is most certainly a part of leading me to continue our tradition of haunted houses, and given me a lot of lessons on living in the midst of grief along the way.


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