How Halloween Helps Me Cope With My Friend's Death

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Everyone has a friend who’s immoderately wild about Halloween — the one who gets more hyped for October 31 than any other date on the calendar, including their own birthday, and, in some cases, Jesus’ birthday too.

My friend John planned his costumes months in advance; I usually knew by mid-July what he had in store. He was never afraid of a little DIY, and his looks always went above and beyond, like his creepy-sexy Tom Cruise from Interview with the Vampire, or that time in college he told me about when he sewed his own faux-fur pants and went as a shirtless satyr.

He was tall and strapping like a cartoon prince; it hardly took a costume for him to fill a room. Maybe it was his passion for performing, but he brought all of his energy to bear on dressing up and going out. If any of my other friends were wavering on their Halloween plans, I always knew John was in — and wanted to turn it out. And we did, for a number of years, in the way only twentysomethings with boundless excitement for city life can.

Then, four years ago, John went to the ER with a bad stomachache and was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He spent most of the following year with his family, undergoing treatment in Kansas. When we’d speak on the phone, he talked like he was grounded — like he’d been sent back in time to cranky adolescence. He complained about his mom not knocking, about feeling like a kid again. But his chemo seemed to be working, and he was counting down the days until he was well enough to come back.

John returned to New York in late summer, when he seemed to be in remission and able to function on his own. In mid-October, he checked into the ER, and the doctors discovered his cancer had spread. I was there with him until his family arrived, texting updates to anxious friends. He had, of course, been planning a Halloween costume since he’d gotten back to the city, when it seemed his life was returning to normal. It kills me that I can’t remember what the costume was amidst all the turmoil of those couple months. Halloween came and went, and John was still in the hospital, in no condition to celebrate.

The holiday fell on a Friday that year. Instead of making plans, I took a yoga class and wondered about the kinship John might feel with the people who’d taken the yoga studio’s costume contest very seriously (the guy in the full ape suit won the prize). I thought about John watching horror movies in his hospital bed as I walked home through the Lower East Side, thick with noisy revelers.

I mourn John around Halloween, maybe even more than I do on his birthday or the day he died.

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John passed away shortly after that. It’s been nearly three years now, and I haven't dressed up for Halloween since. Part of it is because I feel past the age when throwing on a slutty getup and hitting the most crowded party feels like peak fun. (Man, it used to be so fun.) But also, I know, it’s because I mourn John around Halloween, maybe even more than I do on his birthday or the day he died, which are only a few days apart. I think about him all the time; but when the weather starts to turn, and plastic pumpkins hit drugstore aisles, it’s as if he’s looking over my shoulder.

No one in my life embodied the spirit of Halloween like John did. He was devoted to it with the boldness of a little kid — one young enough to throw himself with abandon into playing make-believe, and not to give a shit what anyone thought. For most of us, this is a kind of fearlessness that fades with age. John was always a bit like Peter Pan to me in that way.

In recent years, I've hosted scary movie nights on Halloween — to mark the occasion in some way, and to be surrounded by friends while I shove my face with candy. But I haven't found the will to put on a costume and celebrate.

I needed time to sit with the idea that I'll never spend another Halloween with John. He was the first person I loved who died young. Mortality was no longer relegated to the realm of grandparents and zombie movies and secondhand stories; it had become something real and terrible and terrifying. Making light of it, in the way Halloween does, didn’t seem possible to me anymore. Nor did going all-out without John.

It would feel too neat and trite to conjure some poetic connection between the morbidity of John dying young and his devotion to Halloween. But I do know with certainty that he would love nothing more than for his friends to commemorate him with a spooky seance, or for his death to be the theme of a fabulous Halloween party. It would be just the kind of twisted thing he lived for.

If there's one thing that losing him has taught me, it's to shake off some of those inhibitions that adulthood brings, and give far fewer fucks. The truth of the hashtag had never hit so close to home: You only live once. Maybe he understood it all along.

So this year, I'm back on the market for a costume. It probably definitely won't be hand-sewn, or anywhere near as contest-worthy as what John would have chosen. But I will wear it onto a macabre dance floor, look up at the lights, and hold him in my heart — knowing he’d love how fucking silly I look.

Welcome to Death Week. This week, we'll attempt to unpack our feelings, fears, and hang-ups about death, dying, and mourning. We’ll do our best to leave no gravestone unturned.
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