From Halloween to All Saints Day: Ghosts and Goblins or Saints

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

I have always been struck by the juxtaposition of observing Halloween and then celebrating All Saints Day the following Sunday. Going from watching scary halloween movies, enjoying the elaborate costumes - the ghosts, goblins, zombies, etc. - to then celebrating All Saints Day at church is quite the transition. For those who are unfamiliar, on All Saints Day, churches remember the “saints” who have gone before and, in particular, those who have died the previous year.

As a family therapist, I can’t help but wonder about how we explore our own family histories. Do we see a collection of scary ghosts, or do we see “saints’? What is often forgotten is that “saints” were not perfect people. While they may have done amazing and sacrificial things, they were still people with both strengths and flaws… just like the generations of family members who have gone before us.

The biggest mistake we can make is to think in black and white categories: seeing people as either all good or all bad. By idealizing or demonizing, we miss the point entirely. Any strategy or book that suggests black and white categories, or puts people in rigid categories forgets that life - and people - are more complex than that.

Murray Bowen’s concept of Differentiation of Self helps us think about our family history in a more balanced way. Consider the following suggestions:

  1. First, explore a 3-4 generation genogram (family tree) and look for patterns and themes that carry through the generations. Try to begin to see yourself in the context of these generational patterns.
  2. Next, explore the impact of those patterns on your present relationship functioning. Did you become an overfunctioner or peacemaker as a way of coping with complicated family dynamics like addiction? Or did the lack of accurate mirroring from your parents leave you empty and longing for someone to fill you? Remember: you are the product of multiple generations.
  3. See both the strengths and weaknesses of your parents and previous generations. There were no “saints” or “sinners” but rather human beings who were a mixture of strengths and weaknesses; and left both blessings and curses.
  4. Instead of categorizing past family members as diagnoses or as good/bad, try to see them in context. They too had histories that they had to process and overcome. My own mother dropped out of high school early to work to support her NYC family living in poverty and then later in life got her GED, a college degree and then a masters degree. Understanding her history helped my relationship with her.
  5. Here is the hard part: practice gratitude AND forgiveness. Be grateful for the strengths and blessings that were passed on, and try to offer forgiveness and grace for the mistakes and pain.
  6. Finally, both celebrate and change your history. Remember, your story is not finished. We are part of long histories, and we have the opportunity to help change old patterns and leave the world a better place.