If I Don’t Know How to Mourn You, Can I Make It Up?

Diana Helmuth
15 min readAug 5, 2021
Tandem X Visuals

I walk towards the homeless encampment carefully. Which is to say, as if it’s not there.

I’m not aiming for the people who live here, I’m aiming for the redwoods that shelter them: three colossal Giving Trees that provide protect the optionless people who have pitched tents beneath their boughs.

The camp is active. I hear the soft shuffling of feet. Bob Marley’s voice sings “we jammin we jammin we jammin we jammin” out of a tinny stereo. But I don’t see any faces, so I assume no one sees mine. I walk past once, looking for the least obtrusive spot, then circle back. Finally I reach out, and grab a branch off one of the trees, working fast. It isn’t a clean break, and I twist for what feels like an hour until one whole tendril of Victorian green needles breaks free into my hand. I pretend not to see the picnickers across the park staring at me, and stride purposefully back up the hill towards home before someone in the camp asks what I’m doing. As if I know what I’m doing.

“That was easy,” I bluff to myself so hard I almost believe it. “Perhaps the rest of this will be easy, too.”

Today is November 1st, and I am building an ofrenda. Sort of. I mean, of course I’m not building an ofrenda. I am not Mexican, I am not in Mexico, and I’m not building it for anyone who is Mexican. I don’t have a religion or culture that can give me a compass for what I’m building.

I was raised agnostic in wealthy Northern California community. It was beyond lovely, but somehow not satisfied with itself. Like the discount section of a Restoration Hardware that was told if it just tries a little harder, and keeps wishing on that star, it would someday grow up to be a Buddhist Temple. Every kitchen had a Rumi calendar, and every bathroom an Aura Cacia essential oil starter pack. All the people in line at Whole Foods could at least partially explain to you the spiritual goal of savasana pose, even if all they were buying was the mac n’ cheese from the hot food bar.

Granted, it wasn’t always like this, at least in our house. My family was Christian when I was very young, but, like most 90s families, it didn’t stick around through the new millenium. As an early teen, I sat through a few sermons at a Baptist church while visiting friends in Mississippi, but Southern Jesus seemed too busy defending patriarchy and fetuses to help me with my problems. I have poked my head into witch covens who generously shared their tarot decks and Fiona Horne books with me, but I don’t have much canonical knowledge of “the Craft” to show for it. Do witches even build death altars?

Here’s what I do know: his birthday was October 29th. Samhain was October 31st and today is Dia de Los Muertos. Even the Catholics have All Saints and All Souls tomorrow and the day after. A quick Google search reveals a pan-global consensus amongst those bold enough to speak about the hereafter: this is the time you should honor the dead.

Back home, I walk upstairs, onto the deck and approach the small patio table my partner and I found on the street last year and dragged home. It’s perfumed with sawdust from his woodshop project last week, and there’s a few scraps of wood laying around. Perfect. Dad was a lumberjack and carpenter, my earliest memories of him all covered in sawdust and warnings not to go near “the sharps” (his chainsaws locked up in the garage). I leave the fresh flakes of pine on the table where they are, and lay out a black tablecloth, placing the redwood branch across it, trying to find an angle that feels liturgical.

I step back. It looks like I stole a tree branch and set it down on a wrinkled black tablecloth.

I sigh. I need to add more. It won’t look weird once I add more, I think. I turn away from it with trepidation, as if a squirrel will steal the branch behind my back, and go into the house to see what else I can find.

What’s worse than not knowing how to build this, is that I’m building it for an evangelical Christian. The rest of the family may have broken up with Christianity, but Dad was a staunch disciple until his death. I imagine his ghost floating above me, horrified as I lay out evergreen boughs and contemplate which candles to bring outside to invoke his memory.

He was a resident of Gospel Outreach, a dreamy Christian commune where he met my mother 15 years before I was born. The church was non-denominational, but evangelical, in a kind of 70s, hippie “Jesus is love, come sit at the table, my brother” way. They lived in canvas tents in the dense forests of Humboldt county, ate meals together at communal tables and practiced traditional family values — but with less of an emphasis on shame and hate, and more on community and even ecology. My mom once described a memory of him strapping baby redwood saplings to his back and going off into the forest to re-plant what had been cut. I think, although I’ve never told her this, that everyone there was a victim of some tragedy they were trying to repair in their souls. 30 years outside of its walls, I heard her describe it as a cult. But when she tried to leave, no one stopped her.

I was 4, my sisters 8 and 12 respectively, when she filed for divorce. He had gone back to drugs. There were visitations, at first, but then they stopped once my mother found out where he was taking us when we were alone with him. They set a custody court date. He showed up high. That’s when I learned the only thing stronger than a father’s love is methamphetamine, and I saw him maybe once every few years until I was 18. There were some letters from prison in the interim. Some visits to KFC restaurants, chaperoned by my uncle. Hugs I didn’t know how to receive. Tears I didn’t know how to interpret. “I love you” he’d say, looking deep into my eyes before the van door slammed shut, and I was left standing on the sidewalk, clutching my sisters hands in silence, not knowing what to feel.

Should I go get KFC?

I shake my head and begin collecting his things from their hiding places on my bookshelf. Of the four objects I have of him, one is a t-shirt of a Christian men’s retreat he attended in 2006, and the other is a “Life Application Study Bible,” dog-eared on the page he was reading the night before he suddenly died of heart failure. His new wife said he was clutching his chest, gasping for air, while she tugged his arm, crying, asking if he was OK. Then he fell back into their bed and was gone. That was all the warning anyone had. She didn’t even have time to call 911.

When she heard the news, my mom said she was glad that’s how he went. She confessed, very quietly, to imagining his body being found in a ditch one day. An overdose, or worse. Homeless, defeated, abandoned. “I was glad he didn’t end up like that,” she explained, her voice like a dove, as I listened from a corner of her kitchen, contemplating the haggard tents down the street where I lived in Oakland, and the men who wander around barefoot, lost in their own minds, scratching open wounds. My mind weighs the idea that I could have walked past my own father and never known.

“He always loved you, you know,” she reminds me.

As I gather his bible and t-shirt off the bookshelf inside, I ponder for the fiftieth time today if I should just go to church to honor him. That it’s probably what he would have wanted. I imagine sitting in the pews of a Sunday service, waiting until the stream of pastel clothes filters out in search of brunch, as I shakily walking up to a pastor and murmur “oh please, help me lay my father to rest in my heart.”

But I can’t do that, because the idea of stepping back into a church makes me feel sick.

His funeral was at an evangelical church, and it was almost worse than the news of his death. I was 19, sitting in a church pew power-cycling through all seven stages of grief while a pearly-toothed Joel Osteen facsimile basked in a beam of light at the front of a vaulted hall. The pews were a quarter full of faces I mostly didn’t recognize. The pastor cut short speeches about my father, shooing my uncle’s wife off stage after a single anecdote, “we do not want to dwell in suffering, for the Lord’s will has been done,” he pronounced. He then took charge of the podium and spent 45 minutes orating with equal parts rapture and genericness about the bounty of Christ. He did not look at me. I do not remember his name. I felt like I was in a template; I could tell I was supposed to be playing a role, but like when I was a child, I had trouble understanding my part. I felt selfish. “This is my father,” I wanted to bellow. “I need to talk about him.” But I couldn’t open my mouth, too cowardly to break the social contract of not screaming in a church. Then it was over, and we were whisked into the back for casseroles. Whatever fractured relationship I had with Christianity before my father died was run over with a truck that day. I have avoided churches ever since. The evangelical process of mourning didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t want Josh Groban and a rehearsed essay on why Jesus is Lord. I wanted to feel the spirit of my father. I wanted something real.

So I was going to make it myself.

I snatch the last of his items of my bookshelf and head back to the deck, grabbing a stray candle in the living room along the way. I set out the one printed picture I have of him aside the redwood branch and the carpenter scraps, along with a magnificent wooden bowl he carved of cedar burl when I was a baby. Then there’s his bible, his shirt, and a white candle. Almost done, I think. I go into the kitchen to cut up a bit of beef leftover from two nights ago, but discover that it is gone.

“Did you eat the beef roast?” I call to my partner down the hall.

“Yeah, why?”

“I was hoping to use it on the thing today.”

“…oh,” he calls back, a touch of guilt in his voice.

“It’s OK.” I try to keep the disappointment out of my voice. “You didn’t know.”

I shut the fridge and run my hands through my hair. Now what? I have absolutely no idea what my father’s favorite foods were. The only reason I went for beef is because, a few weeks before he died, he had mentioned in an email that he had been experimenting with meatloaf recipes in his free time. I still have no idea how to make meatloaf. He offered to teach me, but, naturally, we never got around to it. I start rummaging through the cupboard, looking for something else to offer his spirit.

I was 18 when we started emailing at all, trying to repair a relationship. Or rather, trying to build one that never existed. I was an adult now, which meant no one could stop me from seeing him. And also, my age could no longer be an excuse I could hide behind to avoid his attempts to say hello. I simply had to want to see him, and I could. Part of me was afraid, of course. I had no idea who he was, but we were supposed to love each other.

Still, you only get one biological father, so I reached out.

I discovered that, in the past few years, he had gotten clean. He had even remarried. I met his new wife, a sweet Christian woman with perpetually smiling eyes. They lived in a suburban dream house with puffy couches and flowery pillows just outside of LA, along with her daughter from a previous marriage. I was floored. It was like he was…normal. We started having real conversations about what happened when I was young. Comparing notes. Not so much healing — more like seeing if anything could be healed. Or failing that, built from scratch.

Our relationship didn’t have a name. Even the word “dad” felt strange in my mouth. We had no compass for what to say to each other, how to relate to each other this late in the game. I had obviously survived the bulk of puberty without his advice. He had no life experience to help me with my college applications or how to start building a credit score. None of the blueprints of Christian fatherhood work in a scenario where your father has been a ghost your entire life, and no accessible neopagan philosophy I’d ever encountered gave parenting advice (most of the witches I knew were more concerned with reclaiming their self-esteem from absentee parents, rather than talking about how to be parents themselves). I felt awkward around him. But I wanted to try. He wanted to try, too.

He seemed to know the size of his mistakes, but he never gave me his guilt as an object to fix. Despite the strength of his faith, and all it had done for him, he never proselytized, either, or used the bible to insist he deserved any kind of forgiveness or loyalty from me. Instead, he gave me patience. “Take all the time you need,” he seemed to say. “I’m here now, we can start over, and we can talk about whatever you want.” And so I did. I basked in luxurious amounts of time, any feelings of shyness and fear were given absolute priority. How did I feel about a sudden font of paternal love being at my beck and call? I saw him only a handful of times. But it was ok, I told myself. The general logic of my generation is to honor all feelings of trepidation, introversion, and depression. So I did. I was processing. You can’t put a time limit on processing.

Then one morning he died.

I slam the cupboard door shut and pull my head back into the light of reality. I consider abandoning this portion of whatever fucking ceremony I am inventing on the fly. Do I need food? This isn’t a real ofrenda, I remind myself again. The only rules are the ones I’m making up.

But I’m playing this game, I’m building this thing that I think is destined to offend both the person it’s intended for and people of every faith from Norway to Argentina, because I don’t know what else to build. I don’t know what else to do anymore. I need closure. I need absolution. Grief has been stagnating inside me for years, and I need to let it bleed. Like so many other white people who no longer feel or want a connection to their shitty Christian colonial heritage, I am reaching out desperately to find something I can possibly draw strength from, and am now stumbling backwards into a haphazard neo-Wiccan ceremony informed by Mexican traditions. The only thing you could probably say about it for sure is that it’s Californian. I suddenly laugh out loud at myself, my audacity, my idiocy, trying to build a working spiritual compass out of the pieces of other people’s traditions. I make a mental note that I should probably never write about this.

I turn my head to the frito pie, sitting on the stove, that my partner cooked a few hours ago. I could cut a slice, but debate the sacrifice. This is really good pie. And it’s not like anyone is going to actually eat it. How far am I going to take this thing?

I push this thought out of my head quickly. I can’t think about what I’m doing too much or the spell will break. If I give that voice in my head — the one that doesn’t believe in ghosts or tarot or ESP — a single inch she will take a mile. We are already hanging on by threads here.

I glance out the window at the deck, the sad little patio table covered in his things. I think he would like frito pie. Everyone likes frito pie. I cut a fat slice, arrange it on a clean, red plate, and step outside to place it carefully down in front of his picture.

He’s young, in the photo. Probably 25. I have heard rumors from some family members that he was abused as a child, but I am too cowardly to dig into the specifics. I know his mother abandoned him and his brother when he was only just a bit older than I was when he left our family. I know that his father was cruel. I know that he got in trouble for pot in high school in the 70s. I know he was in some version of foster care. I know that he spent his teens “searching” for something greater. The searching ended, as it often does, with Christ. His whole life seemed to be a dance between drugs and Christ. I don’t know if he ever knew what a common American story that had become. Of course it’s common. We all want to be held in the cupped hands of a higher power. We all want to feel safe, so safe we forget we want to be absolved.

I go back into the kitchen, and pour some water into a mug with the Point Arena lighthouse on it. I don’t know if he was completely sober, but alcohol feels a little unfit for someone who worked so hard to be clean. He liked the Northern California coast, so the mug feels more appropriate than a champagne glass. I suddenly recall he liked trains, too, but I don’t have any around, and there’s something about stealing railroad nails off the tracks on Dia de los Muertos that feels like a very, very bad idea.

So this will have to do. The shirt, the wood scraps, the bible, the redwood branch, the wooden bowl, a white candle, a mug of water and a slice of frito pie.

I stare at the table. It still doesn’t look complete. I think for a moment.

I run down the duplex steps into the garden, and grab the stem of a succulent, remembering the greenhouse he had when we were living in a craftsman in the suburbs of Eureka. The tiny alien buds crowded up the panes of steamy glass, 10 feet into the sky. He had hundreds of plants in there, growing, thriving. I would look up at the clear ceiling and see clouds of chilly grey fog rushing by outside, but the air in the greenhouse was still; humid and safe. Years later I would visit a butterfly garden for the first time, and for a brief flash, be four years old again, daring to test my thumb against the spike of a cactus in the warm belly of my father’s greenhouse.

I try to arrange the succulent on the table nicely. Martha Stewart: Mortality edition.

As I arrange it, I hear the neighbor’s kid on his back porch. He has a few friends over. They are laughing on the trampoline and binging their Halloween candy. One tells the other the true meaning of “watermelon sugar” and they all giggle uncomfortably. They say things like “when I grow up.” They talk about how someone is transitioning genders at their school, matter-of-factly and without fear or malice. One says “you guys need to stop saying my mom is strict, she just cares about me,” and the rest don’t push back. I am stunned at what feels like their maturity for their age. I wonder what it would have been like to discuss these things with my father; to have been 13 and talk about LGBTQ+ politics, what sex is, what I want to be when I grow up and how it involves college, why he makes certain rules. How uncomfortable I would have been or backwards I might have considered his responses. I want to paint him as the perfect father I never had, but the truth is some part of me wonders if I dodged a teen career of rebellion and rage.

No, the truth is that I just don’t know. I will never know who I would have been if he was there.

I consider how much of the rituals around death are for entirely for the benefit of the living.

I look at the photo again. He’s so young, kneeling in front of a spray of emerald green cedars, wearing a light blue sweater and a calm, contented smile. It could be any man at all — except he has my eyes, and my mismatched brown and blonde hair in his two-toned beard. He looks healthy. He looks peaceful. He looks like a man who listens to his wife and works with his hands and dresses up for Halloween and is going to crack killer dad jokes in about five years. A man I never got to know. A man who tried to love me as best he could. A man who failed. And kept trying.

I am still trying.

The sun starts to set, and blue twilight cloaks the garden. The plum tree gives a soft exhale, like something has run through it. The kids are jumping on the trampoline, shouting in another world. I stand in front of my creation.

I put the bic light to the candle, and break open.



Diana Helmuth

Natn'l Outdoor Book Award winner. Post Modern Cupcake. Pretty Cool but I Cry a Lot. Author of "The Witching Year."