Building a healthy relationship with death helped me have a healthy relationship with life. I learned this the moment that I was passing the veil. Like most Italian-Americans, I was born and raised Catholic, and like most Catholics I had both a tremendous fear of and a powerful fascination with death from an early age. I already knew that I was going to hell because I was a non-practicing Catholic and followed more of my father’s fate.

Before meeting my best friend Kenny, I didn’t know there was Santa Muerte, the Mexican folk saint whose name means Holy Death. I didn’t know she’d teach me not just how to stop being afraid of dying, but also how to love living. Santa Muerte showed me that new way. I had gotten it in my mind that anything short of a perfect life was a wasted one. I had first heard of Santa Muerte online a few years ago and before that in stories about brujas and narcos. I fully devoted myself to her.

You might have heard that she’s the patron saint of criminals, murderers, and cartels. But she’s so much more than that. Death really is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter how much you accomplish in life — or how much you don’t. Presidents and beggars both die, and Santa Muerte welcomes both into her loving arms. A lot of marginalized people flock to Santa Muerte because she’s the ultimate egalitarian. Her worshippers include queer and trans people, undocumented people, sex workers, domestic violence victims, child abuse victims and criminals. She takes care of all of us and sees us all the same. We’re all siblings in Holy Death.

She’s also a party girl, always ready to celebrate with you and share a smoke and a drink when good things happen. She’s a saint of second and third and fourth chances. She’s a protector and a guide. For those of us who have seen death or face it regularly, she’s a shoulder to cry on and a hand to hold. A shoulder and a hand were exactly what I needed. In her eyes even the worst person on earth is equal to the absolute best. When she looked at me, a depressed, alone, and hopeless severely abused woman, she looked with just as much love as she looked at the pope and saints. She looked at my life with all of its failures and sins and shortcomings, and said I was worthy of love. She looked at me the way I needed to start seeing myself.

There’s a lot to be afraid of and it’s easy to become overwhelmed by death. With Santa Muerte, I can let go of all of that. I can use the energy I used to spend worrying about dying to love myself; I can use that energy to love others. When I see death this way I don’t get overwhelmed by it. And in times like these, that means I can be there for others who do feel overwhelmed.

With Santa Muerte I’m not focusing on an afterlife — I’m focusing on this life. And I’m not focusing on what-ifs — I’m focusing on what is. I can take the gifts she gives me and share them with others. Without my own worries to carry, I can help carry my friends. I’m not afraid of death anymore. And more importantly, I’m not afraid of life. I know that one day I’ll die and I’m at peace with that. And until that day comes, I’ll face the world with courage, knowing Santa Muerte is protecting me and that I’ve got a lot to do while I’m here on earth.

By an anonymous American devotee, dedicated to Dr. Andrew Chesnut

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