Content Note: mention of suicide and depression
Barbara Walters, Pele, Vivienne Westwood, and Pope Benedict are only some of the people we lost during the winter of 2022, but they’re certainly not all of them. According to the American Council on Health and Science, January and December are the deadliest months for Americans. Some folks might know this intuitively and others might be feeling the weight of grief during the holidays–but what does all of this look like up close?
Thinking about the winter months, “there are a lot of factors that go into it, so it’s never surprising to me that we do see an uptick in death. I saw it in every single role that I’ve worked,” says Katie Sue Van Valkenburg, a veteran death-worker currently serving her community as Medical Aid in Dying Program Coordinator and Social Worker at Denver Health.
It’s not just an increase in deaths, there’s also an increase in thinking about death. Eileen Hollis, Funeral Director at Hollis Funeral Home in Syracuse New York, notices an uptick in calls for funeral pre-arrangements in the winter months. Katie Sue mentions a similar phenomenon in her line of work– even if folks didn’t need Eileen or Katie Sue’s services immediately, calls of inquiry increase during the holidays.
Studies and anecdotes about winter being the deadliest time of year are easy to come by, but death workers can help shed new light on these insights.
Do Deaths Increase During the Holidays? Why Statistics Don’t Tell us Everything
Death is human, not just medical or mathematical
In January alone, the CDC records an average of 251,699 deaths in America from 2010-2020, which is just over 9,000 more than December, the second most lethal month, and nearly 33.5k more than August, the least deadly month. This seems like a staggering number, but it’s been a common trend over the last few decades. Cold weather puts stress on our organs, which we exacerbate further with salt, fat, and alcohol during winter festivities. Gathering with family and friends can lead to higher levels of stress and an increase in the likelihood of accidents, according to Live Science. In other words, winter becomes the perfect storm for humans to succumb to our final call.
Number of Deaths in January (not counting COVID related deaths):
United States (2010-2020): Average of 251,699 deaths.
Canada (2020): 27,026 deaths.1
Mexico (2021): 174,117 deaths.2
England and Wales (2022): 73,217 deaths.3
The colder months can get overwhelming for anyone, but if your work revolves around death, Eileen says, “(it) is not for the weak.” And although she says she doesn’t personally notice an increase in deaths over the winter months, Eileen notes the intensity and chaos of the holidays seeping into her work, “seasonal depression is strong…” She has a lot to say about the importance of prioritizing mental health as the daylight and temperature decreases, especially in a climate like Syracuse where the ground freezes so thoroughly that smaller cemeteries can’t even dig into the ground until it thaws in the springtime.
… it’s easy to assume that America’s highest suicide rates correlates with the winter season, but that’s actually a misconception.
Eileen, a “funeral influencer” with seasonal depression, says that mental health is a slippery slope in the winter months. “I’m more preoccupied with how my brain is shifting in winter because it is a darker space inside my head.” You could hear the gravity in her bubbly voice each time the topic of mental health came up in our discussion.
Because of diagnoses like SAD and the emotional rollercoaster that can come with extended family time, it’s easy to assume that America’s highest suicide rates correlates with the winter season, but that’s actually a misconception. Multiple studies show that suicide is attempted more during the springtime. Even still, mental health concerns should be taken seriously, no matter the season.
Baby, It’s (deadly) Cold Outside
While suicide rates are actually low during the holidays, winter weather conditions, beyond the obvious dangers they present, can induce stress and trigger underlying mental and physical health conditions. And those risks only increase if you don’t have access to safe and stable housing.
More people are involved in the dying process than just the one who dies–there are caregivers, family members, friends, and funerary workers. Many hands are on deck and none are immune to the effects of wintertime. Katie Sue said she’s had to step up more as an educator while also leaning on her team, filling in for hospice workers who are either off for the holiday, sick with winter illnesses like COVID or the flu, or simply distracted with their own wintertime chaos. “I can’t just do this myself,” she says, recalling a moment of self-advocacy made necessary by the increased need of her services.
Gathering together inside is quintessential to the winter experience. Between the formal holidays and the basic human need for sharing resources and warmth, we tend to reach out to one another more. But the instinct to be with each other isn’t without risk. We might share laughs, meals, drinks, gifts, and hugs, but deadly illnesses like the flu, COVID-19, and RSV are also in attendance at holiday celebrations.
Cold winter weather means that funeral homes and cemeteries also have to adapt. In a recent viral TikTok, creator @dairy.n tells viewers about his aunt’s passing on Thanksgiving day with all of her extended family gathered in her home to celebrate. his story opened the door to the connection between the holiday season and death. His family sat and ate dinner because “last responders” were all busy with their families. Even with all the snow and ice, Eileen says of Hollis Funeral Home, “if I had known that everyone was over there for dinner [we’d get there in an] hour and a half–tops.” However, she also mentioned the logistics of wintertime removals up north and the importance of communicating to the funeral home if your driveway is shovelled and if your stairs are slick and steep. Icy conditions pose a real threat and account for anywhere from 1,300 to 1,800 road deaths a year.
Death draws nearer as trees shed leaves and plants wither. Are humans simply following nature’s cues?
Hollis Funeral home is not too far from Buffalo, NY, which experienced a catastrophic winter storm this year. When the temperatures drop and the snow falls, burial becomes an issue. Waiting until the spring to inter someone’s remains helps avoid winter-related accidents, creating a safer funeral experience for both loved ones and death workers.
What makes a holiday?
When Katie Sue worked in a nursing home for people with advanced dementia, there was a strict Christmas decoration policy where nothing could be put up until it was actually Christmas because nurses saw an increase in deaths when patients knew the holidays had begun. This, and other instances, led her to be, “a firm believer that the body does have some option [in the dying process].”
Maybe it is the stress from the cold and being around family that literally breaks our hearts, or maybe there is a peace to the holidays that makes it seem like a good time to die. Death draws nearer as trees shed leaves and plants wither. Are humans simply following nature’s cues? “People just don’t want to deal with the holidays…or they do,” Eileen recounts the sensitivity this time of year brings to the funeral home. It’s not her job to remind folks about the expectations of winter holidays while they come to mourn. She would rather help them remove that layer by not putting up decorations.
Being conscientious of those around you is a theme in Katie Sue’s work as well. She had many stories about how people factored in the holidays when making their decision to utilize MAiD, with some folks waiting until after Christmas, others moving their winter celebrations up a few months, and even some taking their medications smack in the middle of the holidays, “because they know that all of their loved ones are off work and they wouldn’t have to take time off.”
Because of all the holiday hustle and bustle, and increased accidents and illnesses, the winter is ripe for moribund contemplation–even more so if you’re snowed in and really only have yourself to talk to. Both women named patience as important aspects of their work, especially during the wintertime. If plants and animals can slow down during this cold weather season, we should allow ourselves a similar respite. Holidays can be difficult, whether death is involved or not. Eileen sees this, too, during wintery funeral processions because, realistically, “hearses do not make good snowmobiles.”