Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Grief Lessons Learned

By Arlene Stepputat, MA

“When grief is expressed and witnessed– listened to– without judgment, the physical and mental pain lessens and can re-awaken the human spirit.” 
Nathalie, end-of-life doula

Born out of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the desire to be of service in a time of death unlike anything seen before, the NHPCO End-of-Life Doula Council began a discussion of how we might be able to help.

Council members saw firsthand that hospices and other grief support options were overwhelmed. End-of-life doulas are trained to provide grief support–this felt like an ideal opportunity to develop a program of support for hospices and community members.

The premise was simple. Trained and seasoned end-of-life doulas volunteered to support people grieving due to loss during the pandemic, whether that was a Covid death or not. Free, confidential, one-on-one sessions via telephone or Zoom were offered to anyone in the US. Services were available in English or Spanish.

Thirteen months later, we have 10 volunteer doulas, the program has received more than 50 requests and each one has been answered. Once a month the doulas gather to share, make inquiries, and offer new resources.  

We asked our doulas to tell us what they experienced and what they are learning about grief. Here are some of the responses.

The depth of grief that I witnessed was palatable. Deep profound losses, the kind that change people’s lives, including my own. Bearing witness to their stories, to their experiences, and to their grief, allowed me to shed away any feeling of self-pity or martyrdom. One person described it as “being able to breathe better” after feeling heard. Personally, bearing witness has allowed me to truly slow down, become fully present, and become aware that life is truly precious. What a gift it is to be able to be with another while we journey together in this way, and so grateful for this grief program to guide the way. 
~Lynne- Anne

My grief support was basically to lend a listening ear, in a non-judgmental fashion; occasionally engaging in conversation when it was appropriate and welcomed. I have learned to become more comfortable with expressed anger, and not personalize what was shared. Some of the anger expressed was directed towards frustration with the medical profession and the providers who served their loved one who died. I usually waited until about the third session with my clients before I told them I am an RN with 17 years of Hospice experience. For some reason, that would usually help to lessen their anger and resentment.

What is evident is that the pandemic so overloaded the medical system, that expectations for the kind of care one wanted for a loved one was rarely met given the sheer volume of those in need. Grief about not being able to be with people as they passed and the rules imposed to manage the spread of the disease showed up as anger at the system.

I had a client that had experienced a sudden and tragic loss. She had no one to speak with–not even her partner- as she felt it was a burden to talk about her loss. Speaking with me, she felt she was in a safe space, which was non-judgmental and comforting.

 I could assess that by the fourth session, there was a shift in their attitude about their grief process and finding some meaning in their losses. They all seemed to be trying to redefine their relationships with the loved one they had lost, and trying to live into a future without their beloved. All of them still had a desire to try and control their grief situation, even though they realize their losses are an uncontrollable situation. 

The doulas provided a loving presence that allowed all expression. People could finally give voice to thoughts and feelings that were being kept inside.

For each of us, the awareness and expression of our grief can make us more authentic. Grief teaches us how to be present and centered, how to let go; it teaches us how to value life and death.

I have learned that grief is a universal yet extremely personal combination of emotions: raw, numbing, physical, visceral, that needs to be felt fully.
~ Nathalie

It has been said that particularly in our Western culture, we are grief ‘illiterate’. It is time that we all learned that holding another’s grief is beyond cards, Kleenex, and casseroles. We must learn the art of tending grief. We must start with our own and then as we continue our healing, we can better hold space for one another.

Here’s one final reflection:

I have learned that keeping an open mind is the best way forward.
I have learned that community is an essential ingredient in the grief recipe. 
I have learned that holding space for others and for myself (without trying to fix anything) is the most loving way to handle grief.
I have learned there are NO experts in grief: I am always a student.
I have learned that sharing one's grief is as important as bearing witness to one's grief.
I have found that grief needs to be listened to - more so than responded to.
I have learned that most often all that is needed is  a warm blanket and a hug.
I have learned that grief is a non-linear journey.


 With the support of NHPCO, the COVID 19 Grief Project was launched in February of 2021 and continues today. Go to to learn more.


Arlene Stepputat, MA, is an end-of-life doula, a hospice chaplain and minister and a certified Advanced Care Planning Facilitator. She holds a Master’s Degree from Columbia University in Family and Community Education and a Master’s in Theology from Peace Theological Seminary. Arlene is a member of the NHPCO End-of-Life Doula Advisory Council. Her website is


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