GriefSpeak: Don’t Hold Your Breath – Mari Nardolillo-Dias

By: Mari Nardolillo-Dias

“The Art of Life is the most distinguished and rarest of all the arts”. (C.G.Jung)

When we are in dire pain, we tend to hold our breath.  We may clench our teeth and grimace. We don’t realize that the lack of oxygen, which we think we are holding in reserve actually depletes the oxygen and thus increases the pain. In the same vein as a birthing coach, a death doula like myself coaches the dying in the same manner. We breathe with them, encouraging them to inhale slowly through the nose and exhale through the mouth. We ask them to model our breaths through the pain.

Yet, the mind forgets. The next gripping pain causes the person to hold their breath again, which is why it is essential to keep the coupled breathing during the painless seconds or minutes. Most recently, it was Bobby that I coached. I went on death doula automatic pilot to help him; however, despite this coaching tool, I couldn’t forget it was my brother. It wasn’t long after that he died.

I recently wrote a text to Bobby:

“The grief therapist in me is counseling the sister in me. The duality is very complicated, but it is difficult for me to get through this any other way.”

Then there was your funeral.

That is when the sister part of me took over and the death doula/grief whisperer disappeared.

I find my grief prickly and angry. I was driving the other day and two young men screamed at me:

“Get off the phone, you stupid bitch!”

I burst into tears and shouted back:

“Shut up. My brother is dead.”

I continued on my way until I didn’t. You see, I hadn’t looked at my gas gauge since Bobby died. I ran out of gas. I didn’t even attempt to follow a rationale protocol of texting someone or walking to a nearby place of business. I walked to the gas station, borrowed a red container of gas and walked back to my car. I put in enough gas to drive back to the gas station, and filled the tank.

My next stop was a self-tanning place. I didn’t want to wear stockings to the wake or funeral, so I had my legs sprayed. Medium. Natural. When I left, I picked up my therapy dog, Mercy, and took her for a walk. It started pouring. The newly sprayed tan needed 24 hours to dry, not 24 minutes. By the time I returned home, tan lines were dripping down my calves like rain on a window.

You can laugh at the absurdity of this. I did. I know that grief can result in a brain fog. Like many of my clients, I find myself in these situations – disconnected, angry. Angry at anyone who is going about a normal day or enjoying themselves. It’s not right. It’s not fair. Don’t they know my brother died and the balance of the world will never be the same? Earth is off its axis. Gravity has shifted and I am off balance. Even grief therapists grieve.

The world has lost a son, a brother, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a dear friend.

I will continue to give myself permission for the days where my grief makes me immobile. And..I will continue to sit by the bedside of the dying, pleading:

“Don’t hold your breath.”


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:


Author, GriefSpeak


  1. Robin Jorge on August 6, 2021 at 4:20 pm

    Mari beautifully written. My heart goes out to you and the family. Be kind to yourself and take whatever time you need. Love you ??❤️

  2. F. Leon Sibielski on August 6, 2021 at 11:13 am

    Those of us who know you and those of us we knew Bobby continue to grieve along with you.
    It’s OK for all of us to do so.
    Peace and blessings to you on this day and those to come.

    • Ann Nardolillo Giampietro on August 6, 2021 at 4:58 pm

      Dear Cousin,
      As you know one never gets ” over it” a phrase I hate! We simply walk through it. Bobby was a great man, always a smile or a compassionate hug in time of pain. Having lost my mom at her age of 53, was devastating to me[ I will admit NO age would have been ok]. ME and my sister like you to Bobbie, attended by her beside. What greater gift can one give then one of compassion and love. I stop and think how long ago was it, because it always feels like yesterday. Please keep writing. Your words are soothing to the soul. My Love and Prayers for you and your family.