We should have called Dennis
Updated: May 23
The Holidays, for believers and non-believers alike, can be acutely emotional and lonesome. The Season of Light, as it is known, isn’t just a religious time – it is a deeply personal and broadly cultural episode of sentimentality, intense feeling and often, over-indulgence. It is a perfect storm for sadness; it is the time when a person’s reserves, her strength, his humour, their perspective on life, can get tapped out to nothing. leaving only, nothing.
Many Christmases ago, my “car phone” (as it then was known) rang. I was driving through Northern Ontario in the black and silvery light of early dusk, when dark comes by 4 o’clock
on the phone was a favourite client of mine, we’ll call him Tom. Tom had this to say: “I have bad news. Dennis is dead.”
Dennis was a senior manager at Tom’s company. Some time before, Dennis had been sent home on “paid investigation leave” while the company examined how he had managed certain financial issues. I was the outside counsel advising the company.
It is standard to send someone home, usually with pay, during an investigation. they’re away so that they can’t meddle with evidence gathering, normally. and frankly, you may not trust them at work anymore. so Dennis was sent away home.
What no-one realized was how the isolation and stress tortured Dennis. the financial issue was serious but not the kind of fraud that would have sent him to jail. what consumed him, we later believed, was the uncertainty of being alone at home, in the dark, for weeks, not knowing what was being unearthed, or said, or decided about him.
As the days staggered towards Christmas, the jolly time which is in fact so heartbreaking and hard for so many, it was all too much for Dennis. The “Season” and the situation – and the thing we had ignored – his own perfectly human fragility – probably combined to kill him.
Why had we left him behind, with no calls or notes? because that’s what “you do” in these situations – you don’t make nice with the guy whose actions you’re investigating. someone could say that was “prejudicial” after all. So nobody called Dennis. And in truth, who really wanted to call him? who really wanted to know how the man who seemed to cause all this trouble, was feeling? Hell, maybe he’d say something nobody was ready to hear.
But we should have called him. those who didn’t call, weren’t responsible for his death, legally or even morally. but we felt it. At the very least we knew that we had not done the most that we could have done, for the lonely man under suspicion.
Most of us cannot imagine suffering so badly we could choose to take our own lives rather than face another day. but of course, it is when the pain and fear become more than we ever imagined, that people make such a choice. those who do aren’t always exceptionally fragile, They’re just regular people, under exceptional burdens.
And many burdens are harder to bear, at Christmastime. Those of us not crushed, those of us who make it through, shouldn’t tell ourselves we are “special” or tell ourselves we’re “normal” for finding the strength. We should tell ourselves we are lucky.
A decade and a half have passed since that cold December day, and we find ourselves here at the close of another orbit ’round the sun. Since then, I have taken pains – as many lawyers do – to beg clients to defer harsh actions or decisions during the Holidays. and if possible, to be aware of the vulnerability of people at any time of the year. I have hardly been perfect about understanding people’s feelings generally, but in this regard I have tried.
And “Tom”, the boss who sent Dennis home, spends part of his Holidays flipping through his rolodex making phone calls – to the people who’ve been sick, or had a hard time, or are away, or who just might need to hear a cheerful voice in the long darkness of December.
This year, I will make some calls like that. maybe you can too.
If you know someone who is suffering, or who might be silently enduring grief and torment, maybe you could reach out to them. you won’t solve all their troubles but you might remind them, just with the sound of your voice or the sight of your text, that they are not totally alone.
You might remind them of their better selves and their better days. You might catch them before they slip into a deeper grief, and avert the worst. Or you might just make someone’s day a little happier.
The cost is a phone call, or a few seconds keying into your phone or computer. It may add little to the world, but it won’t subtract from the world. On the contrary.
So go ahead, call your Dennis