Bereavement programs help grieving Philly families know they are not alone during holidays

The Gift of Life Donor Program and the city’s Longest Night event help families who have lost loved ones
Candle during the holidays.
Photo credit Anna Bochinska/Getty Images

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — For many, the holiday season is a time of joy and celebration, but for those who have lost loved ones, it can be particularly difficult.

For those whose loved ones passed on, but gave someone a second chance at life as an organ donor, the Gift Of Life Donor Program in Philadelphia offers trained staff to stand side-by-side with the families in person or even over the phone, for as long as they need them.

“One of the things that we really emphasize is that this is, first and foremost, a grieving family.  Their grief is not magically healed by the opportunity for donation,” said Gift of Life Director of Family Support Services Lara Moretti.

“We have to remember that these families have experienced something sad and tragic, and that's really the mindset and how we work with them, and how we support them in those moments.”

Markita Lewis is a donor mom. Her son Marquis, who was 13, died of a fatal asthma attack eight years ago.

“The holidays definitely are very hard. I'm actually just putting up my tree,” Lewis said.

She has leaned on the program for support over the years, and says it has saved her during the darkest hours. Meanwhile, three young people are alive and celebrating the holidays thanks to her son’s organ donations, bringing her comfort during this time.

“His heart recipient is in his first year in college. One of the young men that has his kidney and his liver is in the 12th grade, getting ready to graduate high school. His other recipient who has the other kidney is in 10th grade,” said Lewis.

“These are the things that keep me smiling.”

One way people can cope with grief during the holidays is by sharing stories and memories with family and friends, while allowing for — and owning — expressions of emotions.

The Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement holds an event every year called Longest Night. It’s a gathering to support those grieving during the holiday season.

It’s held each December on the evening of the winter solstice, which is the longest night of the year.

“We're coming together to remind each other the power that we have to help comfort one another, to help share in our burdens, to help share in our grief,” said Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement Executive Director Romana Lee-Akiyama.

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She adds that Philadelphians can allow themselves to feel and process their grief, and find joy.

“We're partnering with local teaching artists in the fields of visual arts, poetry and spoken word, and photography to give Philadelphia residents an opportunity to have a hands-on experience to create something beautiful as a way to hold themselves in the midst of this darkness,” Lee-Akiyama said.

Rev. Naomi Washington-Leapheart is Director for Faith-Based and Interfaith Affairs at the OPE.  She says such gatherings are necessary, because life is an exercise in navigating the tension between joy and sadness.

“We are putting on a happy face, putting on our ugly Christmas sweaters to go to holiday parties, even while we are grieving in silence about those we can no longer share the holidays with,” she said, adding that people need the space to own and share their grief with others.

“I want people to come knowing that their struggle is not shameful, knowing that they're not alone. And knowing that yes, we might be living through the longest night of our lives, and that the sun has to rise again!”

Wednesday’s event was held at West Philly’s Lucien E. Blackwell Community Center, in partnership with the Apologues Center.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Anna Bochinska/Getty Images