Her father died nearly seven years ago and she is still struggling to come to terms with the loss.

“It’s hard to wake up in the morning,” said Gillian, who was only 12 years old when her closest friend, her father, passed away. “It’s tough for me, because I miss him terribly and I feel like my whole heart is empty because no one knows how I feel.”

Even as Gillian struggles daily with the loss, she knows she can count on one weekly event to give her a sense of calm. Every Wednesday, Gillian gets together with several other grieving women to sew.

It’s part of a women’s grief program at The Door Is Open, a drop-in centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The centre offers free meals and programs for low-income or marginalized people living in one of Canada’s poorest neighbourhoods.

The DIO launched the grief program about a year ago, offering female guests a safe place to share their stories of grief, build relationships, and meet a counsellor one-on-one.

“When we first started, it was heavy on the content side: knowledge, information, and processing,” said counsellor Liz Fong-McLaughlin. She also encouraged the ladies to try journaling, but that was a challenge as some had low literacy or were uncomfortable with committing their thoughts to paper. A photo album project had a bit more success, but it wasn’t until she mentioned sewing that she realized she’d found the winning formula.

“When they saw the picture of their loved one on the fabric, it was powerful,” said Fong-McLaughlin.

Gillian cuddles up to a blanket featuring a photo of her father, who passed seven years ago.

Two volunteers teach the women to sew a “quillow” – a quilt with a small pouch that, when folded, transforms into a pillow. Photos of their lost loved ones are printed on fabric and sewn on, along with shapes and patterns that say something about who they were.

“For indigenous women especially, there are a lot of losses, not only from death,” said Fong-McLaughlin. The majority of the women here have First Nations backgrounds.

“Quite a few of them went to residential school. They lost a lot there. There is marriage breakdown, death from the opioid crisis– just layer upon layer. It’s not easy for them to come to this to deal with it. We had to find some way to engage them, and this seems a project that really engages them.”

Volunteer Elizabeth Johnston also noticed the surprising benefits sewing has brought to the grief group. “When they first sew the picture on, they rub it and cuddle it. It’s been very therapeutic for them,” she said.

It has also been a significant ego-boost for the women, many of whom had no previous sewing experience. “There’s this lady, she’s got Stage 4 cancer, and she’s zipping around! When we first started, I had to put my hands over her hands and direct her and she was quite frightened to do it. At the end, she would just sit down at the sewing machine and sew. The confidence it’s given them, it’s amazing.”

Maime, a member of the grief program, works on a "quillow" for her mother.

Sisters Brenda and Deborah worked on a “quillow” together to remember their mother, Theresa, gone for 27 years.

“We were real close and everyone misses her,” Brenda said. “She died young, but she was a real comfort to us.”

The sisters faithfully bring flowers to their mother’s grave every birthday and Christmas, and hope the soft “quillow” with Theresa’s image on its cover will be a keepsake and reminder for their nieces and nephews. It is surrounded by shapes of hearts and chocolate kisses, sewn into the pillow case.

“We used a lot of hearts, because we love her so much.”