My father died four days before Christmas, so for me the holidays are filled with both solemn thoughts and wonderful memories. Although it was 21 years ago, it seems like yesterday. We were living in Florida and my parents in New York. My father, a Holocaust survivor, was a vibrant and positive man happy to be alive. Unfortunately, he had a long history of cigarette smoking and poor eating habits.
When he was diagnosed with heart disease, he refused open-heart surgery, saying he'd rather die of natural causes. My mother started him on the Ornish diet and he lost a lot of weight, but six months later ended up in the hospital with congestive heart failure. On December 20, my mother phoned to say she thought we should come see him. My husband, our three kids and I packed our suitcases and flew to New York.
We arrived in the morning. With an oxygen tube in his nose, IV in his arm and a catheter he rolled his head from side to side on his pillow and said, "Diana, please take me one way or another. I cannot stand living like this anymore." We all hugged him and told him we loved him. He called my husband to his bedside, and told him to never take his eyes off our kids. That afternoon he died in his sleep.
It is not a myth: Losing a loved one is common during the holiday season. A University of San Diego study found that the holiday time is a risk factor for death in both heart patients and others. In fact, the Christmas-to-New Year death rate is higher than any other time of the year: death from natural causes is most prevalent on December 25th, 26th and January 1st, the study found. The primary reason is that people tend to delay seeking medical care during this time, the study found. Other possible causes include the prevalence of respiratory problems in colder weather, emotional stressors associated with the holidays, and changes in eating and drinking habits.
My father adored me. I was his sunshine, and when he died a large chunk of me died. I cannot say that the pain has dissipated, but it has softened over the years. Whenever my kids have a milestone, I think of him because of how much he loved them and how proud he would be.
This time of year continues to be a challenge for me. To help cope with the loss of loved ones, many of my literary friends have turned to writing. Some of these stories are shared in my forthcoming book, Writers on the Edge (Modern History Press, 2012). For example, my co-editor, James Brown shares how writing helped him cope with the suicide of his mother and sister.
Here are some tips that have helped others and myself:
1. Talk about your sadness.
2. Reminisce about the times with your loved one.
3. Avoid isolation.
4. Surround yourself with those who understand your sentiments.
5. Honor the person with holiday traditions.
6. Boost your immunity.
7. Exercise regularly.
8. Incorporate a healthy balance of work and play.
9. Cry when you need to cry.
10. Write a letter or poem to your loved one.
Personally, I have found the last tip to be the most beneficial over time. Each year on the anniversary of my father's passing, I either write a letter or poem to him. I update him on the goings on of the past year and express how much I miss him. For the first 15 years after his passing, I sent flowers to his grave site. I no longer do that, but I do have flowers in the home to honor him, remembering that death is an integral part of life.