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What The Passing of Oprah Winfrey's Mother Can Teach Us About Coping With Death During the Holid

Oprah and her mother Vernita Lee

Oprah Winfrey and her mother, the late Vernita Lee.

Photo by George Burns Photography

As the first black female billionaire in the United States and a true living legend (she has her own exhibit at the Smithsonian), few have much in common with media mogul Oprah Winfrey. But today we are sharing in Winfrey's grief as we collectively mourn the Thanksgiving Day passing of Winfrey’s mother Vernita Lee and reflect on the experience of losing a loved one during the holidays.


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Keep the Home Fires Burning

When we lose a loved one on a holiday, the meaning of that day forever changes. It will come around every year, and bring with it memories of sadness, loss, and heartache. Grief is an emotion that comes in stages and waves and is often overwhelming.

Yet as far-fetched as it seems at the time of loss, those of us who have lost someone dear to us know that with time the grief gets easier to bear. The feelings of loss may never go away, but as we adjust to life without the physical presence of our loved one, we come to accept the new reality and learn to move forward with our lives as they are.

Mother of Oprah Winfrey, the late Vernita Lee, describes her great love for her daughter.

But that doesn’t mean we move on from our loved one's memory. The holidays are especially a time to remember them and embrace what she brought to our lives. Consider a special setting at the holiday table or a poem or passage read in their memory. Start the family gathering with a toast in the loved one’s honor, or prepare his favorite dessert and share stories about how much that sweet treat meant to him and the family. The important thing is to keep the loved one's memory alive. It is the belief of many that the body may have passed on, but the soul is with us forever.

Express Your True Feelings

The feelings we have when a loved one passes during the holidays depends on the relationship we had with them when they were living. Winfrey has spoken publicly about her tumultuous childhood and the resulting detachment from her mother she experienced. For women who have had similar relationships with family members that have had a hand in dismantling their childhoods, the passing of that person may yield a host of feelings, including anger and frustration at unresolved issues, or relief that the oppressor has died.

That’s why it’s important to share our feelings with someone we can trust. Whether it’s a therapist, a good friend, or other family members who want to be open about their experience, talking about our true feelings is one of the first steps to healing ourselves.

We may not all have the supreme emotional strength of Winfrey—who chose to love and care for her mother even after living through a detrimental childhood—but we can take small steps to living a full life by choosing to surround ourselves with people who make us feel fulfilled. Winfrey has said that talking about her experiences has been one of her greatest pathways to healing, and she has encouraged other victims of childhood abuse to share their stories. Talking, sharing, and forming relationships with people in our trusted circle is the first step in creating a spiritual family, a group that loves and protects us in the way a biological family should. Winfrey began creating her own definition of family early on—she and Stedman Graham are celebrating over 30 years together, and best friend of 40 years Gayle King is “family,” according to Winfrey.

Accept and Release

One of the most difficult things about the holidays is its focus on family. For those of us who have lost a family member on a birthday or holiday, the last thing we want to do is focus on the fact that someone we love is not here to share our special day.

And for those of dealing daily with strained familial relationships, or living estranged from our biological families, the holidays are especially difficult. Getting through days like these can require a huge dose of love from friends and “chosen” family members just to survive the day.

As the poster child for relationship building, Winfrey understands all too well how challenging it can be to live fully when we’ve lost people we love. But she also understands how to come to a place where we can accept our life as it is now. If we’re not connected to biological family, that means accepting our family as they are while not taking on their emotional ill-health and problematic behavior. If we are longing for family members who have passed on, that means learning to embrace their good memories rather than focusing on their death.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason Winfrey chose to reconcile, at least in part, with Lee in 1990 when she invited her onto The Oprah Winfrey Show for a makeover. What Winfrey’s actions teach us about surviving the death of a loved one on a holiday is that it’s important to make peace with our situation so that we can live with it. For some women that may mean choosing to forgive the past and focus on the future. Others choose to walk away completely from the life they knew and focus on creating a new one. And for women mourning the passing of a family member they loved, choosing to release the death itself and celebrate the memories is one of greatest ways to keep our loved ones alive.

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