Grieve the Catholic Way: Seek Heavenly Help Through Sorrow and Trauma
‘No matter the situation, God is bigger.’
On the backside of happiness is grief — an emotion that we can’t completely avoid or prepare for.
To explore its facets, a mother of a daughter with disabilities, a priest who has written about how the saints met challenges, and widower/exorcist priest shared their insights with the Register.
Jeannie Ewing wrote the book From Grief to Grace: The Journey From Tragedy to Triumph in response to giving birth to a daughter with a rare disease.
“I didn’t know what to do or how to feel,” she told the Register. “I was desperate to understand myself, but found no substantive work that spoke directly to the depth of my grief.” Ewing began researching the complexity of grief while addressing her own feelings.
She explained that the medical community refers to “complicated grief” as meaning being stuck without attempting to move forward, such as obsessing or ruminating over the loss and isolating oneself and not seeking resources or support.
“Good grieving,” she explained, includes not giving yourself a timeline or forcing a sunny spirituality, but rather being honest about feelings — even anger toward God.
“Then,” she said, “we take it to someone trusted and trained — a spiritual director, a therapist — and allow the chasm of the loss to transform us.”
That transformation, she noted, often includes growing in compassion and becoming more attuned to the pain of others. She said it has been especially helpful to be honest with herself, with God and with a few trusted confidants.
Ewing said she has also been helped by meditating on the passion of Jesus.
“The greatest gift about being Catholic,” she said, “is resting in the mystery of God, in surrendering to his infinitude and allowing my limited scope of human experience to yield to what cannot be known this side of heaven.”
Father Joseph Esper, pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Anchorville, Michigan, wrote Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems and More Saintly Solutions to Life’s Common Problems, offering a glimpse of the humanness of the saints, including how some overcame devastating grief.
For instance: When informed of her husband’s death while on a crusade, St. Elizabeth of Hungary cried, “The world is dead to me, and all that was pleasant in it,” and then ran through the castle shrieking hysterically. St. Jane Frances de Chantal — a friend of St. Francis de Sales — struggled with accepting that God had not answered her desperate prayers for her husband and forgiving the friend responsible for the hunting accident that took his life.
But the saints found comfort in their faith. St. Teresa of Ávila, at age 13, consoled herself when her grandmother died by thinking of Our Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. She wrote, “When I began to realize what I had lost, I went in my distress to an image of Our Lady and with many tears besought her to be mother to me … and eventually she brought me back to myself.”
St. Isidore of Seville wrote: “The more we are afflicted in this world, the greater is our assurance in the next; the more we sorrow in the present, the greater will be our joy in the future.”
In the 20th century, Blessed Teresa Grillo Michel’s husband died of sunstroke. She went through a long period of grief, but spiritual reading and the love and support of her family helped. She began reaching out to others in need and eventually established the Congregation of the Little Sisters of Divine Providence.
Father Esper shared suggestions “to help open us to God’s grace to slowly replace darkness and mourning with light and peace.”
As grief begins to pass, look for opportunities to allow God’s light to shine in your life.
Consider joining a support group — people with whom you can share tears and laughter.
·Look for an organization or group — perhaps in your parish — needing volunteers. It can be a way of finding new meaning and making new friends.
Cultivate a deeper relationship with Jesus and with Mary — both of whom knew what it was to grieve and to remain faithful in spite of grief.
“The ultimate response to every problem or tragedy,” the priest said, “is surrendering to the will of God. The saints prove this is possible, even when extremely difficult or painful. Jesus will help us bear our crosses, as he did for all the saints, allowing us to receive one day the heavenly reward they now enjoy.”
An Unanswered Prayer
Father Robert Rottgers, the pastor of St. Philip’s parish in Melbourne, Kentucky, and an exorcist, is a widower with one son and four grandchildren. He was ordained a priest on May 30, 2009. His wife, Penny, died from complications of a drug addiction. It was her addiction that led Rottgers into the Church.
“I become Catholic trying to find spiritual help for my wife’s addiction,” he explained. “For nine months, we went to different churches, and a number of pastors recommended that I leave her because I deserved to be happy.”
Penny, who was baptized Catholic, made an appointment with a priest at St. Oliver Plunkett in Snellville, Georgia. Her life had been wracked with hardship and abuse. When she was just 3, her father died in a car accident, and her new stepfather was a raging alcoholic. Penny became a drug addict at 13. Her mother, stepfather and other relatives eventually committed suicide.
When she developed cervical stenosis, arthritis and fibromyalgia, doctors refused to prescribe painkillers due to her addictive past. She began self-medicating, selling much of what they owned and disappearing for days at a time on drug binges.
“I went to a lot of her therapy sessions and learned not to take it personally, that it was an addiction,” Father Rottgers explained. “Penny knew the addiction was hurting our marriage, but she just couldn’t stop.”
The Catholic priest they talked with at St. Oliver’s told Rottgers that RCIA was starting that very night. He went and was immediately hooked. He entered the Church on Easter 1996. “The Catholic Catechism captured my faith,” he said. “Other churches handed out pledge cards the second week. The Catholic Church is serious about the way the faith is laid out in the Catechism, and it is scripturally based. I was looking for something with order and grounding to it.”
His newfound faith helped him through Penny’s four and a half years of addiction, but it was not easy.
“I prayed for healing, and what I got was my wife dying,” Father Rottgers recalled. “She had a heart murmur, lungs shot from years of smoking, and her liver and kidneys were shutting down. She ended up dying of ARDS (Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome).”
Before Penny died, she had developed a brain infection and was given an MRI. Her husband credited that as a blessing. “When she was little, her skull was fractured by a baseball bat. The MRI showed that her frontal lobe — the part of the brain linked to impulse control — had already been damaged. God gave me that insight at the end.”
Penny received the sacraments before she died and was reconciled with many family members. “She was even handing out Miraculous Medals to drug addicts she once partied with when they visited,” Father Rottgers said.
After the funeral, he grieved over Penny not being healed and struggled with his decisions during her hospitalization. Prayer, daily Mass and talks with a priest brought comfort.
“I realized she was in God’s hands, which was better than anything the world can give,” he said.
For the last two years of their marriage, Rottgers found strength in 1 Corinthians 7:14, where St. Paul said an unbelieving spouse is made holy because of the believing spouse. “I thought that I could possibly help her and pray for her salvation,” he said.
At a charismatic prayer meeting shortly before entering the seminary, Rottgers reflected on that scriptural passage. “God, if you can show me that promise was true, seminary will be so much easier,” he prayed.
After the prayer session, a woman came up to him. “Your wife is at the banquet table of heaven, shining like a brand-new penny,” she told him.
“I did not know that woman,” Rottgers said. “And my wife’s name was Penny.”
“I stress at a lot of my funerals that we are constantly moving forward, and just as we move through different aspects of our lives, we move through grief,” Father Rottgers said. “It doesn’t mean we stop loving that person, but we are called to be joyful, and if we trust God, we need to let that happen.”
Father Rottgers noted that we don’t know how we are going to respond to loss until it happens. “My dad kissed my mom goodnight and woke up in heaven, at age 86, in 2013. That was easy to accept. But, in 2020, when my mom died in a nursing home at 89 with Alzheimer’s, it was horrible. I could only talk to her through a glass because of COVID. I was able to anoint her three weeks earlier, but it gnawed at me that I wasn’t there when she died.”
Being an exorcist, Father Rottgers said, has given him insights into life that have helped with grief. He had been a priest for only six months when a psychologist called about a patient in need of prayer. “I did a blessing with holy water, and her face turned blue and contorted,” Rottgers said. “She knew my son’s name and his children’s. She bent over backward, and her spine went u-shaped, with her feet facing forward still, while her head was almost touching the floor.”
“See, I told you,” the psychologist said.
“My bishop asked if I thought I could handle it,” Father Rottgers recounted, adding that he trained with Father Vincent Lampert, an exorcist with the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, and has since attended the Pope Leo XIII Institute’s three-year course for exorcists.
“Being an exorcist has given me a better understanding of life and death,” he said. “I understand spiritual warfare and the power of God. Life is a continuation, and as it happens, we get to choose the road we take. And I realize that, no matter the situation, God is bigger.”