No two people grieve in the same way, but there is common ground when it comes to the aftermath of the loss of a loved one: Life goes on. Pain lingers. Somehow, those two realities must be reconciled.
Although counseling can be helpful for this tough process, faith-based resources can be invaluable as deeper questions surface concerning purpose, faith and “where is God in this?” And today’s parishes have several options to help those who mourn unpack what their experience means to them and find a way to move forward.
Diana Wheatley volunteered as her parish bereavement minister for two years, attending each funeral, providing copies of books and pamphlets on mourning, and following up for a year afterward with family members. There were challenges in being the “one” bereavement minister at St. Martin of Tours Catholic Church in Los Angeles.
“I encountered situations where parishioners thought that I would help in planning the funeral or would arrange for the dying to receive the sacrament of the sick,” Wheatley said. “And the one-person approach was somewhat overwhelming with nearly 24 deaths of parishioners’ loved ones in an 18-month period!”
But, there are blessings to the ministry.
“I have learned how much need there is among people to feel their parish cares about them,” said Wheatley, ” and I have been very humbled and edified by how much my efforts were appreciated.”
Another Southern California parish, St. Monica Catholic Community, hosts an 11-week bereavement program three times a year. Open to people of all faiths, the program is based on New Day Journal by Maureen O’Brien and combines helping participants understand how they feel with a process of discerning how they are going to move forward.
“We address what people need to work through,” said Christine Gerety, associate director of the outreach and pastoral care department, “to create a new connection with the deceased loved one and a new life for themselves.”
Two organizationally based programs provide parishes with other options for helping parishioners cope with grief.
Good Mourning Ministry (www.goodmourningministry.net) was founded by John and Sandy O’Shaughnessy in 2011. No strangers to personal loss, Sandy’s late husband died of cancer the year after her mother was killed in a car accident, and John’s late wife died the same year as Sandy’s mother.
In the aftermath, both were drawn to helping others handle their losses and were working for the same, Christian-based grief organization when they met and married.
About a year later, the O’Shaughnessys attended a Catholic program on grief that emphasized hope. During eucharistic adoration, John said, “I remember the words that came over me were, ‘Catholic bereavement organization.'”
The O’Schaughnessys put together a workbook and held their first workshop in October 2011. Now, through weekend and five-week styled programs, parishes can offer Good Mourning programs led by John and Sandy or with local volunteers and an accompanying DVD.
Central to the design of the program is “mourning,” as contrasted with “grief.”
John said, “In grief, we feel angry, sad. But mourning is what we do with how we feel. It’s our intentional response. That’s what makes our ministry unique — we spend most of our time on what people can do with their grief, the bridge that leads them on to a new and different life.”
Various activities within the program include traditions and prayers of the Catholic Church, discussion and sharing.
Sandy said, “The Catholic Church is rich in so many things. Our great cloud of witnesses — angels and saints — and (eucharistic) adoration, laying all our struggles at his feet. Also, grief needs an outlet, a voice. When you’ve lost a loved one, you take on a whole language, the language of loss.”
Any program that addresses mourning will not take away the pain. But, said John, “Our goal is to create a paradigm shift where others become disciples of hope. We call it ‘redemptive mourning,'”
Beyond that due to physical death, other types of loss can be difficult to navigate, too. Beginning Experience International Ministry Inc. is a Catholic-based program designed to help individuals cope with the loss of their marriages for a variety of reasons, including incarceration, death and divorce or separation.
“When you say, till death do us part,’ you think, ‘this is it.’ When that becomes not what is the case, it’s extraordinarily unsettling,” said Yvonne Stoops, executive director of Beginning Experience. (https://beginningexperience.org/).
Stoops had been divorced for eight years when she attended a Beginning Experience weekend.
“I realized I wasn’t doing well,” said Stoops. “On the first weekend, I learned that what I had been experiencing all those years was grief. I didn’t know divorced people grieve.”
Approaching her loss through the prism of grief enabled Stoops to understand why she wasn’t thriving, and find renewed faith.
“I think I was living a life of resignation,” said Stoops. Through Beginning Experience, “the Holy Spirit was able to reach me, welcome me back.”
Just as everyone grieves differently, the new reality after loss will be different, too. But the blessing is in the common ground of faith and the help extended by parish families who understand.
Pratt’s website is www.maureenpratt.com.