No one should die in December. Not that death is ever convenient or well timed, but it is the rare person who has extra time during the holiday season to accommodate the disruption death brings to life. As a psychologist, it is the time of year when my practice is the busiest and sessions often have a poignant depth, setting the stage for the hard work to come in January. The contrast between the joyful expectations of the season and the holiday blues is probably felt most acutely in therapists’ offices.

On December 9, 2018, I was hanging ornaments on my Christmas tree when my home phone rang. Assuming it was an end-of-year solicitation, I almost didn’t answer it, but I thought it might be my mother calling. At 93, she is one of the few people in my life who still uses my landline.

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Instead, the call brought shocking news that Larry was dying. Larry was like a brother to me and had been part of my life since I was 10. Larry was the person I would call if my mother was in the hospital as he lived only a few blocks away from her in New York City. But suddenly I heard, “Larry had a massive stroke an hour ago and isn’t expected to make it.” Two weeks earlier, I had given him a hug goodbye after another memorable Thanksgiving at his home. Our families have shared Thanksgiving for over 25 years. This year, we had celebrated Larry’s recent retirement and 65th birthday as well.

Less than a half hour later, my husband and I were in the car on the Massachusetts Turnpike heading from Boston to Manhattan. Not knowing how long I would be gone, I had grabbed my briefcase with my appointment book. As my husband drove, I began texting my Monday appointments to cancel our sessions explaining that a friend had suddenly died.

Over the next month, despite multiple trips to New York City for family gatherings and the memorial service, I missed just two days of scheduled work. As a result, only a small percentage of my practice learned about my recent loss. Typically, whenever I share personal information with a client, it’s a thoughtful decision timed to illuminate something specific for that person. In this case, it was an arbitrary act of scheduling that created two groups: those who knew and those who didn’t. This contrasted sharply with my experience 30 years ago when my father died, and I canceled all my sessions for a couple of weeks. More recently, I had experienced another loss, when a former client was murdered, a loss I carried privately and never shared with any of my clients. Now, I realized I needed to be cognizant of who knew and who didn’t so I could be emotionally prepared to respond when someone offered condolences.

I suddenly found that I was straddling two worlds within my own practice. I was having the mirror experience of some of my clients, those for whom I serve as the person in their life who knows about a “hidden loss.” I carry the knowledge of abortions and abuse. I am privy to unfulfilled dreams and broken promises. One of the gifts of an established therapy relationship is not needing to give the “Cliffs Notes” version of life events. Clients count on me to understand the complexity of their relationships. I know when the death of a parent is a relief and when it is a deep hurt. Therapy is not a reciprocal relationship, and I do not expect my clients to take care of me, but admittedly, it was comforting to be asked, “How are you?”

Not surprisingly, I found myself feeling closer to the clients who knew of Larry’s death than to those who didn’t. When I could speak about my love for this friend, I felt more whole. When clients asked how I was doing, acknowledging my grief allowed me to put it aside and enter into the therapy hour better able to listen. In the few moments I took to explain that Larry was a dear friend whose hospitality and generosity over the years had made Thanksgiving my family’s favorite holiday, it was an opportunity to pay homage to this extraordinary man. Introducing the information to clients who did not know about this event in my life seemed intrusive and unhelpful. Perhaps at some later date, when my experience of an unexpected death felt applicable, I might have revealed this bit of my own history at my own discretion to a particular client. For now, the discrepancy between the two groups of clients in my practice was the consequence of cancelled appointments. Switching between sessions with people who were aware of my loss and those who were not reminded me anew of how much energy it takes to conceal pain.

Keeping parts of ourselves private is important professionally, but it does come at a cost to our own psyches. As those clients who were not aware of my loss offered well wishes for the holidays and the new year, I tried to join in the cheer. But inside, I was struggling to adjust to a new normal, a life without someone I loved, a loss hidden from much of the world, but certainly not from my heart. 

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