Nov. 24, 2021

10: Holidays Can Be Complicated

10: Holidays Can Be Complicated

Logistics are not the only things that complicate death. The holidays can be an emotional time. Here are five ways to help take care of the emotional side of the impact your death will have on those you love.

Logistics are not the only things that complicate death. The holidays can be an emotional time. Here are five ways to help take care of the emotional side of the impact your death will have on those you love.


When I was 9, my Dad got a new teaching position and we moved out of San Francisco into a suburb. Our new house was roomy and had a deck in the backyard. For a few years, we hosted Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, gathering together my titos and titas, uncles and aunts, some blood relatives and some not. The table would mostly be filled with an American spread with a few Filipino dishes included.


That all changed when I was 15. That year, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mom died. The ground fell out from under us and we never again found our footing around the holidays. That first Christmas was, of course, painful. 


I say that, but actually I don’t have any real memories of it. So much from that period is a blank for me. We were zombies, moving our bodies around out of habit, feeling dead inside.


As the years rolled on, we kept trying to do new types of holiday gatherings. Many of them were fun and warm. But we never again had the relaxed family feeling I remember from those years.


Mine is not an unusual story. The holidays are complicated for many of us, warm and wonderful gatherings interrupted by memories of loved ones who are gone. This year, 2021, the second year of the pandemic, this is only more true for so many around the globe.



Hello, and welcome to Dying Kindness, the podcast for people who are going to die someday. I'm Cianna Stewart, and I'm going to die someday. You will too. So let's all learn what we need to do and make some key decisions before we die in order to be kinder to those will leave behind. I believe we should write these decisions down and collect them into one place, what I call a Death Binder, you can get a template for your own Death Binder and more at my website, On behalf of the people who love you, I thank you for taking care of them by thinking ahead. And now on with the show.



Thus far on this podcast, I’ve been talking a lot about logistics. I’ve focused on the legal, medical, and financial decisions we should make in order to take care of our loved ones in the event of our deaths. Today, I want to shift that. I want to address the top five things we can do now to emotionally help take care of the people we love. 


The holiday season brings up so many emotions, and this year might very well be even more intense than most. For some families, this will be the first time they’ll see each other in person in over a year, while others still won’t be able to get together for any number of reasons. For some, this will be the first time they’ve gathered since someone died. Still others may not have anyone to be with at all. And my heart goes out to families who have lost more than one person over the course of this pandemic. There are, sadly, too many families like that.


I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that the first holiday after someone dies can be extra difficult. Traditions are interrupted. Gifts no longer have a recipient. Both feeling happy and feeling sad can seem inappropriate or forced. Memories of past celebrations with people long gone can resurface, bringing waves of joy or renewed grief. Or a strange mix of the two.


Holidays are many things, but they generally aren’t straightforward. 


To make matters worse, this is also the time of year that more people die than any other. Studies have shown that there’s a spike in mortality around the holidays. This is particularly true for cardiac deaths, but there’s a spike in non-cardiac deaths as well. And the two worst days are Christmas and New Year’s.


What could cause this? There are many theories. People tend to eat richer food and drink more over the holidays. There can also be a lot of stress around family gatherings. Or maybe it’s stress from work trying to wrap everything up before going on vacation. People on vacation are often away from their regular doctors. It’s also very likely that people might delay seeking help because they don’t want to leave the party. And once they do get to the hospital, they might find that it’s short staffed due to the holidays, only made worse by this spike in demand. This year, many medical facilities have suffered losses all year long due to the pandemic so this particular staffing problem could be severe.


All these theories make sense and likely contribute to the spike in mortality rate. And there’s one more that I want to surface for our conversation today, one that could be impossible to study: It seems that often when people have an extended dying process, they can “hang on” for something in particular, only to “let go” when that thing happens. Like wanting to have one more Christmas with the family. Or wanting to meet a new grandchild. Or waiting until everyone is gathered together. We’ve all heard stories of people who die right after that one last thing happens. Maybe because they find a sense of peace or closure. It’s like staying alive at that point is an act of will, and they finally make the decision to accept death when their wish is fulfilled.


It’s stories like this, and thinking about having an extended dying process, which are the basis for today’s episode. Hospice workers have said that time and again, when people die, their sole focus is on their relationships with family and friends.


You’ve already heard me say that legal, medical, and financial issues can get in the way of grieving. But those are not the only things that can be left unfinished, complicating the feelings of loss when someone dies. Unresolved relationships and hanging emotions can tangle up grief, making it harder to move through.


If you or I were to die during the holiday season, what would remain in the minds of the people we love? We are taught to think about making a good first impression – what about leaving a good last impression? Our loved ones will replay the last conversation they have with us in their minds in the years to come. Let’s do what we can to make that a memory that brings them joy. This is, of course, a good thing to do all year long, not just during the holidays. But this time of year brings everything into greater focus.


So without further ado, here are my top five things that we should do over the holidays – and year round – to support our people emotionally in the case of our deaths:

Number One: Nurture Your Connections


This is a great time to rekindle waning relationships with relatives and friends. Even if you can’t meet up in person, send a note or make that call. Maybe throw a party where you consciously mix your circles of friends or just get them on the phone together. Connect your friends and family so that your deathbed or funeral isn’t the first time they meet. 

Number Two: Forgive Old Wrongs


If you’re estranged from someone, you can take this time to cross that divide. Forgive. You don’t have to forget, but you also don’t need to let old wounds fester and calcify your heart. Don’t leave it to your loved ones to have to decide whether or not to contact a relative you fell out with to tell them you’re dying. That’s a tough spot to put someone in. I know because that happened to me and I wouldn’t want anyone to have to deal with that.

Number Three: Don’t Worry About Being Perfect


So much of the time over the holidays we can get distracted by small things that ultimately don’t matter, like if we have the right outfit or if our house looks good. Sure those things can be great, but don’t let them get in the way of allowing yourself to feel the joy of connecting with people. Don’t wait to invite someone in until the decorations are perfect. If this is the one chance to see someone, go for it. Let them see you a little messy and unfinished. As Leonard Cohen said, 

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.”

Number Four: Share Your Stories


It’s extra sad when someone dies and all their stories die with them. Whether you write them down or record them on your phone or just tell the people around you, get those stories out. Send the stories into the world to have new life in the retelling. Do this especially if you have stories about someone that they won’t remember because they were too young or stories that involve someone who’s gone. But also share your perspective on an event, on moments in history. Tell people how you got to where you are. As an added bonus, looking back can help you feel more satisfied with your life by helping you remember the history you have with the people around you now.

Number Five: Let Yourself Feel and Express Love


Throughout the holidays, we’ll be hearing and likely saying a lot of words that have become ritualized. Words about gratitude and family and joy. This season, don’t just say the words. Let yourself really feel it. And then go ahead and risk appearing foolish and say it out loud. According to the book “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying,” too often people die regretting not saying “I love you” enough, or that they’d allowed themselves to be happier. Don’t let this be you. Be foolish. Be happy. Love as big as you can.

Last, a bonus that runs through all of these: Be present to this moment right now. Yes. You’re still alive right now. You still have time, however much time that is. Be grateful for that time and use it well. Whoever you’re with, however you’re with them, don’t squander that time by being distracted. If you don’t have enough people around you or if you don’t have the right people around you this holiday, take the steps to fix that for the future. Let others know that you care and want to connect. Invite people in – to your home and into your heart. And pay attention.


If, when we die, the people we love know unquestioningly that we love them, then we have done well by them. That’s truly a kindness.

To recap, these are the five things (and one bonus) that we should do to soften the emotional impact of our future death:


One: Nurture Our Connections

Two: Forgive Old Wrongs

Three: Don’t Worry About Being Perfect

Four: Share Our Stories

Five: Feel and Express Love

And Bonus: Be Present To This Moment



That’s it for today. If you liked this episode, please tell someone about it. You can also go to to send me a story or make a donation to keep this podcast going or learn about other ways to be kind to the people you love. 


The theme music is from Blue Dot Sessions. Everything else was done by me. I’m Cianna Stewart, and I’m going to die someday, but hopefully not before I get the chance to let you know how much I appreciate you.



Today’s death reading is “Death Snips Proud Men” by Carl Sandburg, from the anthology “Death Poems,” edited by Russ Kick.




Death is stronger than all the governments because

the governments are men and men die and then

death laughs: Now you see ‘em, now you don’t.


Death is stronger than all proud men and so death

snips proud men on the nose, throws a pair of

dice and says: Read ‘em and weep.


Death sends a radiogram every day: When I want 

you I’ll drop in – and then one day he comes with a

master key and let’s himself in and says: We’ll go now.


Death is a nurse mother with big arms: ‘Twon’t hurt

you at all; it’s your time now; just need a

long sleep, child; what have you had anyhow

better than sleep?