Dealing with Death, Depression and Denial During the Holidays
Dr. Camille Preston
The Holidays are an amazing time of year, but they can also be stressful. There’s the increasing intensity of work as the year ends, and there are stacking commitments at home as well. The result is one of the most emotionally charged times of the year. Adding to the intensity, the holidays are also a time that reminds us of people we have lost. For me, this includes my grandmother who passed away two decades ago.
Two weeks after I moved to Africa in 1994, my grandmother had a stroke. The distance felt immense. This was before I was on the Internet. Communication was either by fax or by phone and given my location, this necessitated traveling into the city to a special building that had a reliable connection. So I took to writing my grandmother long letters four to five times a week.
I poured my heart out to her and shared how grateful I was for her and our friendship. I sprinkled these letters with my various adventures and observations of working for the State Department, spending time in refugee camps, and adapting to a new culture. Knowing her time was limited, there was virtually nothing that I left unsaid.
I flew home seven months later to spend time with my grandmother. Knowing how much she had aged in eight months when my father picked me up at the airport, he did his best to prepare me for “seeing” her. What he didn’t prepare me for was the warm welcome I would receive from all my grandmother’s nurses. This turned out to be one of the most unexpected, bizarre, humbling and unintentionally vulnerable life experiences.
All the nurses greeted me as if I were a long lost friend. They hugged me and would say, “Cami, I am so glad you are home safely.” Few of these interactions were brief. They would reference my adventures or would share a personal story. These women felt a comfort with me that was profoundly unidirectional. Soon, I realized that my grandmother so loved listening to my letters that, rather than have one nurse read the same letter a few times, she would ask each nurse to read her my letters. Over the months, the nurses felt like they knew me and looked forward to my next missive.
I then returned to Africa and, I confess, writing to my grandmother changed. I couldn’t help but recall the various faces that were also now a part of our private exchange. By the time my grandmother died six months later, I had returned from Africa and was ten days into my Ph.D. program. I remember talking with my father while sitting on the floor of my new, semi-furnished bedroom. My grandmother’s death wasn’t a surprise, but my heartache was. My father, as usual, was wise in his response. He encouraged me to feel the sadness and to celebrate the depth of the heartache. This, after all, is a true testament to the heights to which one has lived and loved.
As we enter the holiday season with all our heightened responsibilities at work and home, it is important to take time out to remember whom we have lost and to honor their presence, even if they are no longer with us every day. Taking time out to remember and celebrate the people we’ve lost – those who once cared for us and inspired us – can help us recharge and stay in flow at a high-pressure time of year.
Celebrate what you feel. We live in a society that has a bifurcated head and heart. Getting into your heart can open up a wealth of energy, insight, and compassion. Too often, we don’t want to feel pain or sadness, but what we don’t realize is by disallowing the “lows,” we also inhibit the “highs.”
Remember what was great. Feel the sadness deeply, with an eye to what you loved about the person you’ve lost. Remember what they taught you and how they touched you. Dwell on your time with them and not on their loss.
Reframe loss into a reflection of how deeply you loved. Turning your heartache into a badge of deep compassionate loving can open you up. Claim your capacity to love. Feel empowered by this capacity.
Live their legacy. During the darkest days of the year, explore what you could do to channel the light and energy of a lost loved one. Remember something they used to say or do for you or other people that had a positive impact and reenact it.
Most importantly, seek – and maintain – a spirit of wellness this time of year.
About the Author
Dr. Camille Preston is the founder of Create More Flow, which accelerates business results by improving individual, team and organizational effectiveness and leadership capabilities from the inside out. A psychologist by training, Camille is masterful at recognizing underlying patterns that inhibit performance. She is a thought leader in virtual effectiveness, cracking the code for understanding how to leverage technology, how to rewire for results, and how to create collaborations with people you do not see face to face. Camille holds an undergraduate degree from Williams College and a doctorate from the University of Virginia.