In May 2000, Christi and Mark Tripodi endured any parent’s most wrenching ordeal. Their 3-year-old son, Bobby, was stricken with bacterial meningitis and died within a day of the diagnosis.
Almost a year and a half later, Bobby’s distraught parents had not accepted his death. Counseling and support groups did not alleviate their sorrow.
The Tripodis’ frustrated search for adequate grief support would eventually prompt them to found a nonprofit bereavement center. Meanwhile, Christi’s mother learned about the Apostolate for Family Consecration, an organization that strengthens the spiritual lives of Catholic families. She urged Christi and Mark to attend one of its conference weekends.
The experience would be the turning point in their long grief journey.
Father Kevin Barrett, the apostolate’s chaplain, described the Tripodis as “completely disconsolate” when they arrived at the apostolate’s Catholic Familyland in central Ohio.
The priest understood their need to question why God allows sickness and death. Before entering the seminary, he worked as a paramedic with the Chicago Fire Department. He witnessed tragedies on the job that made him grapple with these and other questions. The future priest was a lapsed Catholic at that time, but his search for answers brought him back to the faith.
Mark Tripodi described himself as a “cradle Catholic” with only a rudimentary grasp of his religion when he met Father Barrett.
That weekend, the chaplain gave the Tripodis a refresher course in Catholicism. Mark said their encounter planted seeds that led to “a greater appreciation for our Catholic faith, for the teachings of the Church, for the meaning of suffering and for making sense out of the tragic situation in our lives.”
“I was trying to help them understand that we are not made for unhappiness or sorrow,” Father Barrett said. “We are made ultimately to be in heaven, in this place of complete joy and love.”
This is what Pope Francis said on May 19 in an address to apostolates evangelizing the sick: “Jesus teaches us to live the pain by accepting the reality of life with trust and hope, bringing the love of God and neighbor, even in suffering — and love transforms everything.”
Mark and Christi each made a heartfelt confession and emerged from the weekend with a sense of peace. Both realized that they wanted one day to be reunited with Bobby in heaven. Consequently, they recognized a need to adjust their priorities.
Christi resolved to give God a greater place in her life.
Mark, too, admitted the need for change. He described the couple as “glamour Catholics” until then, who dressed up to attend Mass but prayed only on Sunday.
After they returned home, the Tripodis continued to study Catholic beliefs. They attended other programs of the Apostolate for Family Consecration, and they soon became good friends with Father Barrett.
But their spiritual and emotional recovery did not happen overnight.
The chaplain recalled a discussion he had with Christi in the unlikely setting of an Ohio State University football game. Christi did not blame God for Bobby’s death, but she still struggled to find meaning in suffering. The priest reminded her of our first parents’ misuse of free will that introduced sin and ensuing troubles into the world via Genesis.
Then he spoke about the Crucifixion.
“When the creatures are murdering the Son of God, he’s achieving our redemption,” Father Barrett said. “God knows how to bring good out of evil.”
The chaplain assured Christi that God is not indifferent to our suffering and wants to hear our pain in prayer.
Christi and Mark began to pray daily. They slowly added other practices to their spiritual lives.
“It took some time, but we adopted family consecration,” Mark said, “attempting to do the daily Rosary, frequent confession and the First Saturdays devotion to Our Lady of Fatima.”
The Tripodis now credit faith as the major factor in helping them to accept Bobby’s death.
Others have also gained help and hope at Catholic Familyland.
Converts to Catholicism, Robert and Cindy Babecka had already embraced the faith-filled truths promoted by the Apostolate of Family Consecration when Cindy was diagnosed with cancer. The couple and their six children followed the apostolate’s recommendation to daily offer up their joys and sufferings as spiritual gifts for the Sacred and Eucharistic Heart of Jesus, all through the Sorrowful and Immaculate Heart of Mary and in union with St. Joseph.
Robert Babecka believes this — and practices such as praying the family Rosary — helped them cope with Cindy’s illness and death.
“It certainly helped give me a better perspective on the spiritual value of my suffering,” he said. “I hear of people who lost loved ones, and they get mad at God. I was worried that the kids might, but they trusted him.”
The Tripodis’ rekindled faith also influenced their dogged pursuit to found a nonprofit bereavement center.
They were convinced that God had given them a mission to help others who mourned: They opened Cornerstone of Hope in 2003, after raising funds, enlisting a board of directors and hiring trained therapists.
Ephesians 2:20 inspired the nondenominational center’s name: “Built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.”
“If we don’t have our own personal life built on the foundation of Christ, forget it — this place would not be here today,” Mark said during an interview at the sprawling, Victorian-style building in Independence, Ohio.
“Our center is Our Lord,” Christi agreed.
From the beginning, Mark, who has a master’s degree in business administration, has been the center’s executive director, and Christi serves on the board.
As a board member, Christi is on site weekly, attending many of Cornerstone of Hope’s numerous events. She prays for guidance as she tries to console grieving individuals.
“I always call upon the Holy Spirit,” Christi said. “Without the Holy Spirit, I am nothing.”
Thousands of adults, teens and children have found help at Cornerstone of Hope through individual counseling, support groups and numerous workshops. The grounds include a prayer garden, where individuals can converse with God in serene surroundings. Specific programs are designed for Catholics, such as a Bible study facilitated by a deacon. Participants in the mile-long “Walk to Remember” at Catholic cemeteries pray the Rosary, offer prayers for their deceased loved ones and conclude with a candle-lighting ceremony.
Christi said of the center’s work with the bereaved of any faith, “We always try to make sure that it’s about God, too.”
Shannon Grubich, a Catholic licensed social worker and counselor at Cornerstone of Hope, includes a spiritual element in her work with clients.
“I always recommend prayer,” Grubich said. “God is the Person who is always there. He gives us strength. He gives us courage, and he takes away the anxiety that comes with going on a grief journey.”
Grubich suggests that the bereaved seek the support of family, friends and their church communities, as well as receive professional counseling.
Clients respond well to this faith-filled approach.
Carole and Ken Golonka turned to Cornerstone after their son’s death.
“We could feel the healing power of God working through these generous, brave and dedicated individuals who provided guidance — and, most importantly, hope to all,” said Carole Golonka.
Debbie Boyd, who found help at Cornerstone after her son died, praised its staff, too: “They are like a family, so loving and compassionate.”
The Tripodis, who now have eight other children, acknowledge that they will always miss Bobby. They managed to find purpose in life, however, even while dealing with devastating loss. Now, they encourage others to do the same — which is what Pope Francis has reminded the faithful to do.
As the Pope noted in Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), “Jesus teaches us to not be ashamed of touching human misery, of touching his flesh in our brothers and sisters who suffer” (270).
“Mark and Christi suffered something tremendous, and yet look at the good God has brought from that,” Father Barrett explained. “From there, they started a whole work to help grieving families and to give them hope.”
He advised Catholics who lose a loved one or go through any type of suffering to follow the Tripodis’ example and turn to God.
“The real cornerstone of hope is faith,” Father Barrett said. “[It] is believing that God loves me even in the midst of the many incomprehensible sorrows of this life.”
Jerri Donohue writes from