leaves on a tree look like a face and leaves blowing away in the wind from tree also look like a face

“The Art of Goodbye”

By Francesca Lynn Arnoldy, author of The Death Doula’s Guide to Living Fully and Dying Prepared

Endings can be hard. They can break our hearts. Not surprisingly, we often try to avoid them.

What if, though, instead of rushing through endings, we instead try to pause and commemorate times of transition?

This isn’t an easy prospect, because endings can be challenging and also because new beginnings are alluring. They’re packed with intrigue and promise. For most of us, it’s much more appealing to focus on what’s next in lieu of paying attention to what has passed. But this temptation keeps us from experiencing the full gamut of what life offers. When we protect and distract ourselves from sadness and complexity, it leaves us ill-prepared for major change. Perhaps, if we can begin acknowledging small-scale endings along the way, we will be better able to handle more profound ones in the future.

Years ago, my family started a tradition of marking significant endings and beginnings with “blessing stones.” When our sweet dog Bella died, we all took part in her farewell. My kids were quite young, and I wanted to make sure they were involved in ways that felt okay. First, we each set off to find a special gift from nature—often a stone, but it could also be a pinecone, flower, leaf, or anything else—and then we gathered around the grave my husband had dug on the edge of our yard. We took turns holding out our nature gift in outstretched hands while filling it up with memories, words of thanks, and wishes for Bella. We dropped in our blessings along with some tears. It was a simply orchestrated way to process and heal.

There’s no strict definition of what makes a transition “significant,” but I’ve continued to incorporate blessing stones when a particularly special or notable time is coming to a close or when one is starting. During the initial summer of the pandemic, I escaped with my family to my grandparents’ lake house for a week. We had been stuck at home so much during lockdowns that the change of scenery was amazing. Days stretched on with rounds of swimming, board games, books, and cooking over an open fire with the sunset glistening on the water. All-in-all, it was magic—low-stress and exactly what we needed to recharge.

As our last day approached, our hearts grew heavy. During our final morning, in the middle of packing and cleaning, sadness was giving way to crankiness. I hated the thought of leaving such a beautiful experience with such negative attitudes. I knew we needed to lean into the sadness. We had to give our feelings space to breathe. So, I pressed pause on the task list and asked the family to gather blessing stones and meet me on the dock.

Once gathered, I asked everyone to think of their favorite moments from the week we had together. We took turns filling up our blessing stones and sharing:

Drinking our morning coffee and tea on paddle boards while the sun came up. Jumping on the water trampoline with friends. Making fires. Having s’mores. Playing frisbee. Reading comics. Watching old cartoons. Eating smoked cheddar cheese and pepperoni. Seeing loved ones. Getting treats from the ice cream boat.

Memories flowed, and then we dropped, threw, or skipped our stones into the lake. We found that by reviewing highlights and bringing gratitude into focus, we were able to carry forward some of that bliss we had enjoyed. Of course, our hearts still ached a little as we returned to normal life, but bittersweetness can be confirmation of a time relished. Joy and sorrow go hand in hand.

Have you had a similar experience? Are there rituals you and your family or friends have used to mark the end of something or the passing of time? Are there traditions you might want to establish now?

Excerpted from The Death Doula’s Guide to Living Fully and Dying Prepared by Francesca Lynn Arnoldy

Francesca Lynn Arnoldy is a respected community doula and death literacy advocate. She is the author of Cultivating the Doula Heart and Map of Memory Lane. Francesca is a researcher with the Vermont Conversation Lab and she was the original course developer of the University of Vermont’s End-of-Life Doula Professional Certificate Programs. A trusted thought-leader, Francesca has been featured in articles by The New York Times, Fast Company, Newsweek, The Verge, and AARP. She regularly presents on life-and-death topics with hopes of encouraging people to support one another through times of intensity.

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