Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

Bittersweet Holidays


Many experience grief during the holidays. Make sure to acknowledge your patients’ feelings and consider encouraging them to heal through ritual. 

The holidays can be a challenging time in the hospital. Our patients want to be well, be with their loved ones, and be home. And we have the same desires. These days should be filled with celebration, tradition, and gathering, but there’s also longing, disappointment, and nostalgia. Alongside the moments of seasonal joy, I find myself thinking about the way grief shows up in the spaces between expectation and reality. The empty chair at the dining table. The child snuggled in the hospital bed hoping Santa knows they’re not home right now. The emergency call-in to the unit just before gifts are opened. The fake smile amidst everyone else’s genuine smiles. The first holiday alone. Or the ninth one alone. 


Anyone who’s experienced a significant loss in their life can tell you that grief is messy, volatile, and sneaky. Some moments are predictably hard, while others catch us off guard and dominate every aspect of our being. Additionally, things we thought would be overwhelming might be surprisingly “ok” or not affect us at all. I wish there was a way to predict grief and its sequela, but there are many helpful ways to respond to it. My favorite is rituals. 



There are connotations surrounding the concept of ritual depending on culture, experience, and spirituality. To define it simply, ritual is participating in a specific act that holds significance and purpose. There are many ways to take part in rituals that create space for healing and peace. They can be tangible or intangible, small or grand, personal or communal. Here are some ideas for both us and our patients.  

 1. Pick an item to wear that reminds you of the person you’re missing.

2. Create a new tradition that can happen anywhere: the hospital, at home, or overseas.

3. Light a candle on a meaningful day.

4. Write “A Letter Never Sent” saying what you really want to say.

5. Give back to the community in honor of a loved one.

6. Attend a service or ceremony of remembrance.

7. Hang their stocking on the mantle because they’re still a part of your family.

8. Schedule the holiday on a different day when you’ll be together.

9. Whisper a silent “I love you” during a bittersweet moment.

10. Set the table just like a loved one would have.


However you choose to practice ritual, make it poignant and repeatable. The first time can feel awkward or forced, but the meaning will grow over time. You might just end up looking forward to it and find a moment of peace. 








This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.