The family of Jacinto Daniel Salazar had to face his passing a number of times over the past decade. After each medical crisis relating to his heart condition, he recovered. But in early September when Salazar became so ill he could not get out of bed, his family knew the end was near.
Rudy Martinez, the oldest of Salazar's nine grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren, received the news via Skype in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Sept. 10. When Martinez saw his grandfather on the Internet video he said he started to cry. He took the first flight out to Denver the next day.
At the home of his aunt Cathy Alire in Denver, Martinez joined many family members surrounding his grandfather's bed. Some were serious, others chuckling as they recalled their adventures with Salazar. Martinez determined that he needed to be strong to support other members of the family.
He approached the bed and took the hand of his grandfather.
"He told me, 'I've been waiting for you,' and I said, 'I'm here now,' and he answered 'I'm glad you got here. I'm not ready to go yet, but I'm happy you're here,'" said Martinez.
For Ron Salazar, one of the elder Salazar's five children, his father's decline was heart-breaking. He shared that while he was ready to face his dear father's death, the process had been extremely painful.
"The journey has been emotional for me because ," Ron began in a low voice, fighting back the tears, "because I promised him that I would never let him get to this point. He told me that the day that he could no longer take care of himself was the day he wanted to go."
The morning of Sept. 12, 78-year-old Daniel Salazar took his last breath. His fight was over.
The loss of a loved one is traumatic for everyone, despite how prepared they might think they are, said Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, which specializes in preparing individuals for such losses.
Within the Latino community death is a topic not talked about much. In fact, many internalize their feelings of profound grief to demonstrate strength of character, or so that they won't be seen as the weak ones in the family. Wolfelt suggests that these feelings of grief should be appropriately expressed in order for an individual to attain greater emotional health. Some Hispanics take advantage of the Day of the Dead, or the time around All Saints Day, to vent their emotions and memorialize their loved ones, which is very positive, according to Wolfelt.
"Death terminates life, it does not terminate relationships. Although it seems strange that some Latinos do not speak of death specifically, they do use these ceremonies to face their pain," said Wolfelt.
The family of Daniel Salazar undertook various events to commemorate his life. He was considered the rock of the family, "a warrior, chief, and spiritual leader," which made his death all that much harder to accept for some in the family, said Ron Salazar.
The elder Salazar's funeral took place on Sept. 18 and was an homage to the love Daniel had for his Mexican culture and his Navajo Native American heritage.
Stephanie Salazar, the youngest of his three daughters, said that the strength her father displayed all his life is one of his legacies.
"That strength and toughness he grew up with as a child, a son of farm workers, is the biggest gift he gave us. It is what will help us get through his loss," she said.
The family finds solace in the belief that their loved one is in a better place. Alire, Daniel's primary caretaker for the last 14 years in her home, recounted that her father always imagined himself being reincarnated as an eagle. In his later years, Salazar embraced the beliefs of his Native ancestors, which helped him spiritually in his struggle with his illness, Alire said.
"As a result of having this deep Native faith, I believe he is on the road to heaven, and that he will be set free. He said his body had become a jail, and he needed to be set free. As an eagle he would no longer be a prisoner of his body, and for me this image is a great gift but also a bittersweet reality," she said.
The Rev. Tomás Fraile of San Cajetan's Catholic Church in southwest Denver indicated that faith was one of the tools that helps a person shoulder the pain of losing a loved one. What is important is not to despair, but to "learn to live by appreciating every moment."
"We suffer because we miss the person, but not because we think they are suffering. They are actually much better than us. In fact in Castilian we don't say 'they died,' we say 'they have passed to a better life,' he explained. "The problem I have seen is that we love the person so much that we almost lose hope. Instead, we need to believe that a person's death is not in vain, or better yet, that death produces something beneficial. Pondering death, we learn how to live."
Wolfelt suggested that part of the difficulty that some people have in expressing their grief about the loss of a loved one is because we live in a society that is focused on youth, where "growing old, illness, death, and grief are not part of the day-to-day life of the majority of the population." Wolfelt noted that for the first time in the history of this country, a person as old as 45 may never have faced the death of a close family member.
"If they face the death of a parent for the first time at age 45, this unleashes the 'fight or flight' instinct where the person wants nothing to do with what has happened and only wants to distance themselves from their feelings," he said. "Many want to skate around the pain and not confront it, and they end up living in the shadow or ghost of their pain. If you don't go through the pain, you cannot live or love fully."
Wolfelt said that funerals and memorial services help a person overcome their traumatic experience and share in the memory of their departed.
"When we come together for the Day of the Dead, for example, we take a step back, but then we take another step forward. We remember our ancestors, and this allows us to know who we are," he said.
For those trying to console others, it is important to be patient and lend support, according to Fraile. In his ministry, he tries to provide emotional support for all those affected by a loss, from the mother weeping for the death of a newborn, to the passing of one in their later years.
"All one can do is try to console with caring. Many times the temptation to not speak or visit is there, but sometimes simply being by the side of the affected person allows them to realize how caring you really are. Silence often speaks more than words or music," he said.
Dr. Jeanne Rozwadowski watched Daniel Salazar suffer for many years. The doctor provided not only medical treatment but emotional support for the family, especially for Stephanie Salazar, who had entrusted her father to the doctor's care.
"I felt very sad when I learned that Daniel had died because he had been such a role model, but at the same time I felt relieved because he had been so sick, and with his passing, his suffering also ceased," she said. "I thought then of the family, because although their pain had not ended, at least the suffering of watching him battle his illness had ended."
Stephanie Salazar indicated that the support she had received from family, friends and even her father's doctors made all the difference in her ability to carry such an emotional burden for so many years.
"I told the doctor, 'Maybe all that has passed has to do with our journey, and not just about my father's path. Maybe it's been about helping us become stronger individuals and unite as a family.' The whole thing became one family's journey."
For those who are mourning, Wolfelt recommended affirming and expressing their pain, not being swayed by those who want to minimize unpleasant feelings or are urging people to just let go of their loved one.
For Rudy Martinez, who lives with the pain of losing not only his grandfather but also a daughter who passed away in 1999 and an infant nephew who died just days after Salazar, the positive attitude and good humor bequeathed by his grandfather has helped him live with the grief.
"What is important is to stay positive and have faith that there is a better place," Martinez said. "We have to make sure we take care of those we do have here and not worry about those who have passed away. They no longer have to live in this world, but you and I do."