Advice from the Trenches: Ghosts of Christmas

deathDear C;

The holidays are in full swing and a friend of mine dropped dead just yesterday. It was a bit of a jolt, mostly because I was about to text him to see if he was playing at a local club this Thursday. I sometimes sat in and sang with his band. Then a post suddenly appeared on my message feed that he’d passed away just hours before. At first I thought it was a fake post like you sometimes see. Then his partner confirmed it. I know I should be feeling something, but I’m just numb.

I guess that my question is this: Do more people die during the holidays? I thought they hung on until after. I’m just wondering because this seems completely unreal.

Silent Carol

Dear Carol,

You’re still in shock, sweetie. Grief affects everyone differently. Sometimes there’s an immediate outpouring of sadness and loss, sometimes people get inexplicably angry and sometimes the mind goes on autopilot and the real emotions emerge later. There’s no one right way to process something like this. The fact that it happened right before Christmas is an extra blow.

This season can be tough on a lot of people, but it’s not always for the reasons that you’d think. It seems as if the pressure and expectations of the holidays would drive the weak over the edge and cause those with family to linger, but researchers in this country found that statistics tell a different story.

More people die on Christmas day, the day after Christmas or on New Year’s Day than on any other single day of the year. This is true whether it’s a result of natural causes or from cardiac disease, cancer or other fatal illnesses. Deaths are also consistent among people of all age groups, with one exception: children. Children seem to thrive during the holidays.

What’s odd is that no one can really put their finger on why this happens. It seems that stress would be an obvious answer for higher mortality rates. But when research scientists compared deaths in the general population with those of Alzheimer’s patients and other cognitively detached patients who were unaware of the holidays, the rates were the same.

Researchers also considered that colder temperatures might be responsible, but that wasn’t the case either. In fact, there were very slightly more deaths in warmer states near the Mexican border than in those near Canada. The next question was food and alcohol consumption. Perhaps indulgence caused a rise in health crises? But holiday deaths were higher even among patients who adhered to strictly supervised diets. Substance abuse and deaths from overdose? Surprisingly, these barely rose at all.

Another anomaly: Fewer people commit suicide during seasonal festivities; in fact that’s when this rate is the lowest. The homicide rate also goes down for the holidays. Go figure.

The best researchers could figure out in the end was that access to medical care might be the most common factor in all cases. People put off getting medical help because they don’t want to interrupt festivities or abandon visiting relatives. The staffing at hospitals during the holidays may also be to blame. Level One trauma centers see the greatest spike in death rates, possibly because it is here that even seconds make a difference, and the response of junior staff may not be on par with those of senior members (who are given vacation priority).

A last consideration: A lot more people set their houses on fire this time of year.

I hope that answers your question on holiday death. But let’s address the elephant in the room, Carol, before we go. This was a real kick in the teeth for you and I don’t think you’ve even started to process it.

There’s really nothing that is going to make it easier. I know psychologists have the whole process neatly listed in steps; I’ve also noticed that therapists don’t do any better with personal grief than the rest of us. But here’s what I kindly suggest: Please do not get comfortable in your coma. You need to get back into life again. This starts with an effort. Find out if there is a service. Go. Be with others who cared about him. There will probably be music.Your friend would have liked this. Cry if you need to. It’s what friends do.

But do not be silent, Carol. A musician’s life is about making a joyful noise. Sing and celebrate that. It will help.

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