Woman sitting with a blonde dog
Longtime Santa Cruzan and mental health advocate Gail Pellerin says her dog Darwin has been a “huge source of emotional support” over the years.
(Kevin Painchaud | Lookout Santa Cruz)
Pandemic Life

‘It’s OK that you’re not OK’: Gail Pellerin shares her pain of loss, wisdom on navigating the holidays

After retiring from her role as county clerk last year, Gail Pellerin is now focused on mental health advocacy and suicide prevention. She talked about the challenges people may face at this time of year, and how to support your loved ones during the holidays.

As Gail Pellerin prepares for Thanksgiving this year, she has two things in mind: her loved ones’ mental health and well-being, and Mrs. Cubbison’s cornbread stuffing.

The longtime Santa Cruzan — who served the county for 27 years until last December — knows how difficult the holiday season can be for many people, both in relation to the pandemic and to the challenges of isolation, mental health and family dynamics.

Since retiring from her role as county clerk, Pellerin has devoted more of her time to mental health advocacy and suicide prevention work, and her lived experience helps to elucidate the potential challenges and solutions for the holiday season and the cold winter months ahead.

Pellerin lost her husband of 25 years, Tom, to suicide three years ago and has become an outspoken advocate for those facing similar challenges.

“It’s important to find gratefulness in every day — I am very grateful for what I have, even if what I have is broken,” she said. “Brokenness isn’t necessarily defeat, though; we’re all broken, that’s how the light gets in.”

Do you think Thanksgiving may be more challenging than last year’s for people, as we near the second year of the pandemic?

I think everyone is fighting their own battles, and it’s all very individual and unique. The last 21 months have been very, very hard, but even family dynamics and mental health and well-being affected many of us even before the pandemic. It’s a subject that’s been in the closet way too long.

Living through the pandemic has continued to impact people in ways where they’re more aware of their own mental health and well-being, and perhaps impacted by a friend or family member. I don’t think things get any easier — we learn and grow around the challenges we have. Communication and conversations are so important, and people need to have people they can talk to, and have a safety net.

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Have you carried on any holiday traditions you shared with Tom?

I light a candle every year at this time just to honor him and keep his memory present during this time. I told my daughter the other day, it’s important to find gratefulness in every day — I am very grateful for what I have, even if what I have is broken. Brokenness isn’t necessarily defeat, though; we’re all broken, that’s how the light gets in.

Close up of an older woman with red hair
Gail Pellerin, who retired from her position as county clerk last December, has been focusing more on mental health advocacy over the last year.
(Kevin Painchaud | Lookout Santa Cruz)

We can’t create the Thanksgiving that we had before Tom, because so much has changed. We’re trying to focus on the love that brings us together and the good memories, but it’s not easy.

We really have to sit with those feelings and acknowledge them in order to continue on that path...part of our struggle, we can’t create the Thanksgiving that we had before Tom, because so much has changed. We’re trying to focus on the love that brings us together and the good memories, but it’s not easy.

One thing that I always have to have at my Thanksgiving is Mrs. Cubbison’s cornbread stuffing — no matter where we go or what we do, we have to have it. Tom loved pecan pie, so I absolutely have to have a pecan pie because that’s what he loved. The people at the table have changed, but the gratitude remains, the hope remains, and I’m lucky I’m a positive person...I try not to get dragged into the negative.

What are some ways people can prepare for discomfort or loneliness during this holiday?

We need to look at Thanksgiving as a special day, yes, but it’s one of 365 days. There are so many other opportunities and days and ways to connect with people — I think it’s good to go into it without a lot of expectations. There will be other opportunities and other days to connect with people.

Spend three minutes meditating, set your intentions, and think about two personality traits that you’re grateful for. Focus inward, and then make it as good of a Thanksgiving as you possibly can. If it doesn’t live up to your expectations, it’s okay, because there will be another day.

I think it all has to go back to really finding that place of gratefulness, thankfulness, and focusing on what we do have instead of what we don’t. Know that this too shall pass, and not everybody will have this Thanksgiving we see in the Hallmark movies or Norman Rockwell paintings.

The pandemic has increased the risk factors for suicide — what are the most important steps that still need to be taken with educating people about suicide prevention?

It’s okay that you’re not okay — we all try to work through it and use the tools we have.

NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health) has been a great resource for me to provide a lot of the tools, and Al-Anon helps to navigate being a support person for someone, but also in setting your own boundaries and not losing yourself.

Self love is not selfish...We do need to take care of ourselves before we take care of someone else. Having tough conversations is really important — letting people know that you love them and they are enough just the way they are. But, it’s also a fine line, because you want to push them toward getting on their path.

This is why I want 24/7, 365 mobile health care options; if a 988 number was up and working, we could have the skills, knowledge and ability to understand our needs and try to find a path forward. That’s what this is all about — we need to keep moving forward.

That’s when suicide comes into play, it’s very difficult to navigate; when you’re in it, you need help, and help is not always available. It’s really hard hearing that so many people are hurting, and it’s causing this huge division in our society — it’s a horrible thing to watch.

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How can family members or friends support their loved ones if they are struggling?

I think, for a lot of us, it’s a choice — every day, get up and make it the best day you can make it. Be kind to people, be authentic and honest, and give where you can. It’s so important to put things into perspective.

It’s important to also remind ourselves and our loved ones that the only thing permanent in life is change — the question is, how do you want to live? We all have our stories, we all have our struggles, and that connects us.

Gail Pellerin and her dog Darwin.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s important to also remind ourselves and our loved ones that the only thing permanent in life is change — the question is, how do you want to live? We all have our stories, we all have our struggles, and that connects us.

What are some good ideas for improving self-care?

I think it’s great to be out in nature, I get a lot of comfort from watching the sunrise or sunset.

Being with people who’ve got your back is great, whether that be family or friends or animals. My dog Darwin has been a huge source of emotional support for me.

Life is all about decisions — the very first decision you make is when the alarm goes off. Do you jump out of bed or do you hit the snooze button? If you don’t take action within five seconds, your brain will talk you out of it... it’s important to live your best life, whatever that is, and do the things that take care of you. No one’s coming to get you to be healthy, to get you to exercise, to get you to write the book — it’s really up to you at the end of the day.

All of us are going to die, so how are we going to live? Some days are hard to really motivate yourself to do the things you need to do, but it’s important to take care of yourself. Isolation made it really hard to connect with people and we’re all getting back into things, but it’s all about balance too — you can’t be all one thing.

What organizations can people turn to for support during this time?

I can’t stress counseling enough, and I think we all don’t get enough sleep, which definitely adds to our health and well-being.

There are so many different groups that help too: the Wings group, Al-Anon and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I think that mental health has been ignored for too long, both at the federal government level, the state level, the local level...we need to start reinvesting our financing and resources, and make it more available.

We just need to be kinder to each other — if we could all just be a little more kind, tolerant, grateful, and take a deep breath. There’s a lot of anger out there, and the division is just so disheartening — there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us.

If you are struggling, reach out to a hotline or a friend. I think there’s a change happening where people are starting to realize the importance of mental health. I think we’re going to see a lot more changes in the mental health field...hang in there, it’s going to get better.