On Creating Sacred Space

By  Clothilde M Cook

Creating sacred space involves several factors: Setting up the physical space, the room in which the visiting or vigil will take place, setting up the emotional space, maintaining the space and holding the space. As Thanadoulas, we serve as a custodian of a sacred vigil space.

First, I free the area of excess clutter. Clean all fabrics or sheets and clean off the furniture. I use a nontoxic cleaner with added essential oils such as lavender or clary sage. Lemon oil soap for the wood furniture and any wood flooring. I dust the walls using a Swiffer with all-purpose cleaner and peppermint essential oil. I open the window to let light and fresh air in if it is warm enough. If it is cold or loud outside, I won’t open the window and I will use a quiet air purifier, if available. The temperature of the room can be about 70­73 degrees F. Ideally, the room will have a door that sets it apart from the main entrance to the building.

Now that the space has been made clean and neutral, I will tailor it to the wants and needs of the dying loved one and family. If the loved one is dying, I will not smudge or burn incense, unless they want that. The same goes for how bright the room is and if there is music. If the loved one would like music, I play calming classical music, meditation tones or the loved one’s personal favorite songs. If they like flowers, I will place them in view. If they like to look outside, I will position the bed so that it faces the window, before they are placed in the bed. Visitors will come in when the loved one can accept them. There will be a few small chairs and a table with personal items and perhaps a small notebook for visitors to share memories they want to write down. Outside of the room, there can be a sitting area, with snacks and drinks, especially fresh water. The visitors may not realize that they are hungry or need to replenish fluids in a time of mourning, so I would like it to be available for them. There will be an area for children to be occupied by books, toys and cartoons. Not only will this afford the parents some space, it will also help the children process their emotions through play. There will be Kleenexes available and a place nearby such as a park, where visitors can go and reflect their feelings with nature.

To set up the space, I would do this meditation for the dying loved one and /or the family and visitors. I wrote this meditation using a favorite element of mine, of visual protection: An egg of light surrounding you.

Lay or sit comfortably. Use pillows to prop body in a relaxing position. If sitting, sit up tall, rather than slouching, with core supported and spine in alignment. Take a moment to check in and notice how your body feels. Make any adjustments to get in a comfortable and supported position. …

Begin to notice your breathing. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Breathe in through your nose, filling lungs and bringing in fresh Oxygen. Breathe out through your mouth, releasing toxins and Co2. Notice the speed of your breath, notice the depth of your breathe. Don’t judge, simply observe. If you want to take a deeper breath, feel free to do so. If you want to slow your breathing, feel free to slow it down, drawing in a long breath, slowly filling your lungs. Notice if your body relaxes further. Make any necessary adjustments. Where are you holding tension or pain in your muscles? Imagine your breath sending fizzy bubbles of oxygen to all your muscles to invigorate and refresh them, see the oxygen you draw in travel to each muscle and refresh it.If there is pain in your lower back, see the oxygen you breath in travel to your lower back and invigorate it with effervescent, refreshing oxygen, if you are having pain in your abdomen, see the breath drawn in and send fizzy oxygen to the area. As you breathe out, imagine the pain and toxins flushing out from the pain and tense areas of your body … (this part can be changed if specific ailments or pains are known and wanting to be directly worked on)

Continue breathing and observing your breath, trust now that your inhale will send fresh oxygen to your muscles and will release pain and toxins on your exhale. Breathe in, breathe out. Begin to notice a faint light within you. Coming from somewhere in the center, deep in the center of you. It is a soft pink light. Pink is a healing color and helps assuage feelings of grief and sadness.

See and feel the pink light from within you expand. It grows and becomes a soft white light. As it grows, it encompasses your body and bathes you in light. Imagine it expanding outward to a large sphere of light around your whole person. It protects you from malevolent energy and harm. Feel yourself in this giant sphere light. See sparks of harm bouncing off the outside of the shell, like solar flares. You are protected. Expand the light to encompass the entire room. See and feel the sphere of healing light growing from other individuals in the room to become larger and encompass the room. With each person’s light expanding around the room, the whole room is protected with layered strength. This is a sacred place.

Slowly open your eyes and know that you are here to share love and kindness in a sacred space. “

At this point I would get water or direct people to water and cups, encouraging hydration.

Another essential component of a sacred space is for thanandoulas to hold the space. Holding space means to be present for someone else’s needs, physical or emotional. It can mean listening, looking out, paying attention, and checking in.

In order to hold space for others, you will need to know how to hold space for yourself.

I looked at Heather Plett’s guide to holding space for yourself. I represent them here with my own notes of interpretation. I encourage everyone to examine what these ideas mean to them to add to the richness of this work.


1. Learn when to walk away. Before taking on something new, ask yourself what amount of time and energy it will require, and then double that. Take a deep breath and know that if you say yes to everything you can only give divided attention which might have a worse outcome than turning the offer down completely. Saying yes to only what you can truly take on will give you a stronger more stable foundation to do your work from.

2. Let the tears flow. Talk it out, journaling, simply going to the lake and watching the view. If you are somewhere and need to cry, let yourself be excused. There is no need to feel shame. Crying is a release that can also process anger in a healthy way. If the crying continues or it becomes feelings of hopelessness, seek out help. Connect with friends or seek out therapy, and support groups.

3. Let others hold space for you. When asking for help from friends, I am clear about what support I need and why I am asking that particular friend. Different friends and family members can help in differing ways. Be sure to ask directly so family and friends are clear on what is needed and how they can help.

4. Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is a kind of checking in. Take a moment to notice your breathing, notice any tension in your body, notice what thoughts you are having. Ask yourself if you need to hold onto these thoughts. We physically hold onto stress in our bodies. I like to do a thing at night where I write down any anxious thoughts keeping me awake. Then I can relax, knowing that I won’t forget to do these things and I no longer need to think about them now because I have written them down

5. Find sources of inspiration. Inspire means to breathe in. It is truly invaluable to go for walk in a beautiful park or view your favorite paintings at a museum. Also, be inspired by laughter, watch a favorite comedy. Spend time with your creative and silly nieces and nephews.

6. Let other people live their own stories. It is easy to get wrapped up in someone else’s drama. Ask yourself why first. Are you bored, are you looking for an escape from your own problems? Back up; look at your own life and what you need to do. You cannot save the world. The best way to make a positive impact in the world is by starting with you. Take care of yourself and those in your immediate life. Be honest with yourself and communicate with care and attention with those in your immediate life. You cannot do it all, be present with what is there before you. And if you have more on your plate than you can handle, think about what needs to be given up. We cannot do it all!

7. Find a creative outlet for processing what you’re experiencing. Anyone can make art and be creative. Try something, anything you are interested in. Creative expression is not about technical art skills. If you like to doodle while listening to a podcast, do that. If you like to paint, do that. If you like to cook elaborate meals for your loved ones, that’s great! Set aside time for fun, curious creativity. Make it a priority and set aside time in your datebook each week for this as needed.

I read Heather Plett’s tips from http://beyondhospice.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/BH_what-it-means-to-Hold-Space.pdf. Below the tips are listed, with my own interpretation on each of them

1. Give people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom. This is about honoring the family’s wishes. For example, if they want the vigil in the back of the house rather than the room you may have suggested for all kinds of logical reasons, you have to trust that. You can give them reasons, if you think it really might be a bad idea, but ultimately it is the family’s wishes you want to honor. The whole point is for us empower families to be involved and to demystify and facilitate home funerals.

2. Give people only as much information as they can handle. There is a lot going on. Make a list of what info the family needs to know. Look at the list and think about what is highest priority. Ask for a moment to discuss choices and options, rather than just plopping questions in the middle of everything else going on. Value their input, make notes. Involve the appropriate family members. You might ask a helpful relative who is not so directly grieving that they can take on tasks such as gathering pictures or favorite quilts.

3. Don’t take their power away. Let the family know what their options are. What they can do. Help them prioritize and navigate them through the process. They make the decisions and you help see them through.

4. Keep your own ego out of it. There will be all around dissatisfaction, even for yourself because you won’t be recommended for the future. You can chat with other doulas to celebrate your work. It is important to feel appreciated for this work, but make that time appropriate and not interrupt the actual work itself. Families themselves also show that they appreciate you, but don’t take it personal if they can’t, there is a lot going on and families are often deep in grief.

5. Make them feel safe enough to fail. That they tried shows that they did not fail in loving their family and doing what they could to honor their wishes.

6. Give guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness. This goes back to not taking their power away, and keeping the ego out of it. If an idea is imposed on the family as what they should do, the family is likely going to feel cowed in and feel negative and out of control with the process. This is not the experience we are going for.

7. Create a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma, etc. allow the emotions to flow. Hold their hand or offer a hug if needed. Allow them to vent without giving advice or a solution. Be there steadily. Remember no to take these things personal, be a neutral strong force of support.

8. Allow them to make different decisions and to have different experiences than you would. Listen to what needs they are expressing. This is about the family having the closest to their wishes honored in this difficult and stressful time.