Female wearing winter coat and hat standing outside looking off into the distance while snow is falling all around.

Tending A Broken Heart: A Letter from an End-of-Life Doula

Dec 5, 2022

We are surrounded by beauty in this season. There’s the quiet of freshly fallen snow, the candles in the windows, and the bright lights of trees and menorahs—the delight in the eyes of a child at all the magic around them. The sounds of beautiful music fill our spaces. As an End-of-Life Doula, I have been speaking to clients and their families about this beauty, about the importance of seeing this, even as the darkness begins to settle in for them during this holiday time.

In Minnesota–evening begins at 4:30 pm as the darkness falls and the lights turn on. We tend to rush home because the frigid temperatures seem to feel harsher when it is dark. We find ourselves wanting to hibernate, eat tons of carbs, and shut out the world. It’s particularly tempting to do when you are grieving. Part of my work as a doula includes bereavement, and I find that winter is a particularly bleak time. Some of us are experiencing the absence of our loved ones for the first time this season, and it hurts!

For almost three years, we have been coping with enormous amounts of grief and loss. We are weary and stretched. We’ve lost some of our social “muscles” for gathering and preparing. Our work, our children’s education, and our relationships have changed. Some of our relationships have also ended, some of them through death.

The holidays, already fraught with high expectations and demands, are a particularly difficult time to navigate this landscape. It can make us feel lonely, “out of it,” and at a loss as to how to move forward. We long for those who have died, and sometimes it’s a scramble to figure out what to make of those losses.

In this culture, there is the expectation of jolly and happy times because there are many cultural myths about the holidays. For example, that we all celebrate them. That we are in some monolithic culture in which everyone has a Thanksgiving dinner and a Christmas tree. That we all will have our loved ones around us for these holidays.

As David Kessler, researcher, writer, and grief expert says so well: “Your absence is loud this holiday season.”

How do we navigate this grief when traditions and memories are particularly strong? Even those of us who do not celebrate the holidays have stories and food and decorations and music and gatherings in our DNA from the past, both positive and negative.

When someone important in our lives dies, or a relationship ends, we must create a new relationship with them. Even though their physical bodies are gone, they have a presence in us. Memories– good and bad, and feelings– good and bad– are still present.

It can be challenging to figure out how to manage the holidays with the “loud” absence of our loved ones. Here are some suggestions which might be helpful to you and those in your life who might need them:

  • We need to take some time to consider the implication of the change in our lives. Softly sitting and thinking about the person and the holidays or talking it over with a close friend or family member who also knew them, sharing what was wonderful and not so wonderful can help manage the various emotions. By speaking directly about the loss and the feelings about the person, we can get some clarity in the new relationship. Anger and feelings of being abandoned are expected, and naming them directly can be healing. We can choose the memories to focus on, and we can forgive. Keeping it real, in other words.
  • Journaling about our loss can be very therapeutic, as can writing a letter (which won’t be delivered, of course) to the person who has died.
  • Rituals, both old and new, can be helpful. For many of us, grief and loss are unchartered territories, and rituals help us mark the shift in our lives. They help us say that a significant change has occurred, and our world is not the same. Rituals also foster community; they give us a focus on coming together and effect the transformation which has occurred by the death of a loved one.
  • It can also be helpful to change up some of the traditions and rituals we’ve shared with our loved ones. While we might choose to honor the old traditions (some people prefer to keep everything the same, and that’s just fine!), it might also be helpful to create new ones (for example, donating a gift in their memory or creating an altar– an ofrenda–in which memorabilia, pictures, and messages about and to the person who has died are remembered). Another idea is to take a ritual you’ve had with the person who has died and repeat it with others who are also grieving, making it into a memorial ritual. For example, making their favorite recipe together and share stories while doing so.
  • A meal ritual might include everyone sharing a toast with the person or going around and telling stories about the individual. It has been said that people are only really “gone” when we stop saying their names or stop telling stories about them. Talk about them, tell the stories—repeatedly.
  • Some lighter shifts can also take place; skip the stodgy decorations or change the holiday menu–it can be a little fun, even liberating, to ditch the plum pudding no one has ever liked!
  • Rituals can be quite small and still be effective in helping us mark this passage—sometimes simple is the best.
  • We get to determine how to be during this time—we can choose to be in yoga pants and the house for the entire holiday season. We can also go to a holiday gathering for only 10 minutes, and that’s okay.
  • We know that there is physical pain and stiffness from the grief in our bodies; it’s a good idea to clear one’s head and move our body through walks with friends and loved ones. Ice skating or some other activity can all serve that purpose.

No matter what you choose to do during the holidays to cope with your grief, it’s important to remember that time will pass, and there will be moments of great difficulty and lovely gratitude for our loved ones. There might even be relief that they are gone. That’s normal grieving. The key is to be gentle with ourselves; there is no script, there is flexibility, and it could change from moment to moment. Remember to grieve. Embrace the idea that there is no right way to do so, no stages or steps to be followed. Whatever we choose to do will be just the right thing.

E Daphne Roberts says it beautifully:

“Grief never ends, but it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith…it is the price of love.”

It can also be said that it is the price of being human.

About the Author

Patricia Harmon is an End-of-Life Doula and founder of Limina. Patricia recently partnered with a few of Guild’s clinical teams to workshop grief rituals to practice in the workplace after a client or community member passes away. Learn more in our story, Grief Rituals: Processing Life After Death.