A group of people in santa hats standing in front of bushes.

GriefSpeak: A Christmas passing blessing – Mari Nardolillo Dias

By Mari Nardolillo Dias

Deb texted me a few days ago.

“Downward spiral. I’m scared.”

I knew she was referring to her husband, loving referred to as Joe Mac. His prostate cancer had metastasized to his bones. Anyone who has experienced living with and watching a loved one die of cancer knows the highs and lows, as well as the trajectory of the disease. There is a litany of signs that the end of life is near. Deb was experiencing one of cancer’s major shifts: Joe Mac had lost interest in eating.

I met Deb in homeroom in our freshman year at St. Mary Academy (Bay View). Deb is no stranger to death – she and Joe Mac lost their first born son JoJo five years ago, a sudden death due to an accidental overdose. Deb is the director of Teen Challenge Rhode Island, a long term residential treatment facility for women struggling with addiction. They all know and love Joe Mac, as he is well known for his antics in his role of Santa at the Women’s Home, as part of the Blues Brothers at the PC basketball games, his service in Vietnam as a Lieutenant in the United States Army, his wild and crazy outfits, and his jokes.

Everyone who ever met him knows about his former occupation as a diesel fitter. If you are not familiar with that career, Joe will tell you he worked at Macy’s in the women’s undergarment department. Oftentimes, men would come in looking for some fancy panties for their wives, who were on the large side… Joe said he would go in the back room and come out with a very large set of underwear and present them to the male shopper stating:

“Dees ill fit her!”

Deb and her staff love the residents back to life. She knows that won’t work for Joe Mac anymore.

I drove north to their home in North Providence. After much discussion, Deb determined that 11 o’clock a.m. would work best. Mary, the CNA, would be there for Joe Mac, and we could speak in the kitchen. During our heart to heart conversation, the front doorbell rang, startling all. Mary went to the front door and before opening it she exclaimed excitedly:

“There are a lot of people out there!”

Deb and I both jumped up from the kitchen table and rushed to the door, just as Mary opened it. There stood the staff and the residents of Teen Challenge Rhode Island, donned with matching holiday tee shirts and Santa hats. They did not speak, but began to sing the traditional songs of the season. They also added their own personal verse to “We wish you a Merry Christmas” for Joe Mac. The tears fell simultaneously from Deb, Mary and me. It was a Godwink for sure.

Deb asked them to come into the house to pray over Joe. The love and spirit in that room was undefinable. The air was thick with the spirit and energy of love.  I was meant to be there in that moment. These are women who are no longer ravaged by drugs and abuse, and now stand, flanked by white auras lifting their voices as they sang. It was a powerful experience during a bittersweet Christmas Season. Girls raising their voices in song and prayer for Joe Mac. Deb posted the following on social media:

“…Life is getting more complicated … My heart is very heavy, but I know I’m so fortunate to be here with Joe in OUR home where we have shared 30 years together… Joe Mac and I are surrounded by soo many beautiful, loving, caring, and praying people… May you be blessed knowing you ARE making a huge difference in our lives.”

Deb has an incredible way of reframing. She focuses on what is not, as well as what is.

“I am blessed that Joe is not in any pain, that he was well enough to travel last year. I am blessed for the painful, heart shattering gift of having Joe at home.”

Deb cannot love Joe Mac back to life like she has for the girls at Teen Challenge for over twenty years. But she can continue to love him for the rest of his life. And beyond.

Postscript:  Joe Mac passed peacefully, without any pain, just prior to the submission of this article, on Friday, December 10, 2021. A Renaissance man who touched everyone he met. He will never be forgotten.


To read all of Dr. Mari Nardolillo Dias stories for RINewsToday, go to:

Dr. Mari Dias is a nationally board-certified counselor, holds a Fellow in Thanatology and is certified in both grief counseling and complicated grief. Dias is a Certified death doula, and has a Certificate in Psychological Autopsy.

She is Professor of Clinical Mental Health, Master of Science program, Johnson & Wales University. Dias is the director of GracePointe Grief Center, in North Kingstown, RI.  For more information, go to:


  1. Jenn Cobb on December 12, 2021 at 9:16 pm

    This article was absolutely beautiful I am I tears! I have had the privilege to visit Joe Mac this past Tuesday!! Having met him in my own journey at TC Rhode Island he impacted my life!! He also loved us back to life it was what his did!! The laughter and smiles the jokes too!! He has left a lasting impression on my life!! You will be missed Joe Mac!!



    • mari on December 13, 2021 at 11:56 pm

      Thank you so much for your kind words about the article and for the caroling! Yes , Joe did help loving you girls back to life!

  2. MICHAEL MORSE on December 12, 2021 at 1:56 am

    Just beautiful.

    • Mary Muskelly on December 12, 2021 at 2:59 pm

      This is so beautiful god bless you and the family may mr Joe Mac sleep in peace ??️?️?️?

      • mari on December 13, 2021 at 11:59 pm

        Hello Mary!
        You made the news! And one of Joe Mac’s favorites!
        Be Well

    • mari on December 13, 2021 at 11:57 pm

      Thank you Michael! We may have a mutual admiration society here!
      Bless you and Be Well.