Hold On Tight to a Heart of Stone

The year was 1987. It was December and most people were busy hurrying from shopping to holiday parties to religious observances, preparing with great anticipation for the celebrations to come. Thoughts of what to make for the holiday dinner or how to get all of the gifts wrapped in time consumed most of their days.

But I was standing in front of a window on the top floor of Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach. I was gazing outside at the street below, trying to make sense out of the lights and decorations that I could see through the glass and the tears that flowed. Time had slowed down. You see, my mother-in-law, a woman I loved deeply, lay dying in the ICU. It was only a mere 5 weeks prior that she had been brought into the hospital with difficulty breathing, only to discover that she had stage 4 lung cancer. She was 53 years old. Our family experienced a terrible 180 degree turn from joyful anticipation of the holiday season and the impending birth of her first grandchild to overwhelming despair at understanding that she would not live to see either of these happy events.

As I looked out of that window, I couldn’t understand how the world could celebrate and radiate such joy when our hearts were being torn apart. Couldn’t they see that our lives were changing in ways that so many of us fear and dread? She died on December 13th and a piece of all of us died with her.

That holiday changed my life because since that time, I’ve always thought about those who are suffering and grieving at this time of year. We know that grief’s pain is sharp and all-encompassing whenever it enters our lives, but the holidays seem to provide opportunities for it to bite a little harder, to inflict new pain, and to wound more deeply. We may be consumed by thoughts of holidays in years gone by, before the terrible event that took them from our lives. Our loved ones should be here — and we struggle with competing thoughts of happiness and joy while enduring great sadness and emptiness, often exchanged multiple times in day, in an hour, or in a moment. What to do with such inner turmoil?

My mind fast forwards to years later when I was working at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma WA. I came in contact with an amazing group of people from Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital’s Bridge’s Center for Grieving Children. This program provides grief support to children and adolescents – as well as offering much needed comfort to the adults in their families. To help children deal with the pain, they provide stuffed hearts (“feelie hearts”) that the children can carry in their pockets. The idea is, when the pain becomes too big and the loss too much, the kids can reach into their pockets and be reminded of the love that still remains. Something tangible. Something to hold on to. Since 1988 they have distributed more than 100,000 feelie hearts to grieving children.

Keeping with that tradition, I carry a small heart of stone in my pocket during the holiday season. It reminds me of all of the people that I have lost in my life, but whose fond memories and love still remain. When the bittersweet images emerge, I grab ahold of my stone and remind myself of the good that we shared and that nothing will ever change that.

For those of us who are celebrating the holidays while carrying grief, I encourage you to hold tight to a heart of stone, or any other memento that can easily fit into your pocket. I also hope you will speak the names of these loved ones at your celebrations, in loving honor of the roles they’ve played in your life and the places they still keep in your heart. Collectively acknowledging them with your loved ones will allow you to keep them close and will help you to lean into the goodness around you. It will allow you to enjoy the moments you are in.

On behalf of the staff at the CSU Shiley Haynes Institute for Palliative Care, we wish you peace during this holiday season and beyond.

  • If grief threatens to overwhelm you, there is support available. Many hospices provide bereavement support, even if your loved one didn’t use their services. Spiritual communities, family and friends can also help you to navigate this time of year. The National Crisis Hotline is available to support anyone experiencing an emotional crisis (including suicide; 800-273-8255). For help finding resources in your area, call (your area code) 211 or visit