Healing Sorrow: Faith and Fellowship Aid Those Grieving
Church and online communities offer needed support.
Deacon Henry deMena of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, calls death and dying a “prime time” for reaching people with the Gospel.
While the average person “cruising through life” may not see a need for attending Mass every Sunday, Deacon deMena, who has spent many years guiding parish and diocesan bereavement ministry, said people often turn to the Church when tragedy strikes.
“It’s an opportunity to show that God is good, and church is good,” he said. “We’re here for you, and we’re going to help you through this.”
In addition to performing a short-term work of mercy, compassionate care for the grieving can have lasting effects, Deacon deMena said.
“You get somebody at a funeral, and they’re touched by how you buried their loved one, and they might come back for the rest of their life,” he said.
On the flipside, a lack of response from the Church can have devastating consequences, said Kelly Breaux of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Kelly said she and her husband, Ryan, fell away from practicing the Catholic faith following the loss of twins (one shortly after birth in 2005 and another in 2009).
“The Church provided the Christian rite of burial, but no one called to check on me,” Breaux said. “No one knew when I stopped going to Mass.”
Furthermore, “a wedge started to form in our marriage,” Breaux said, due to differences in the way men and women often grieve.
Five years later, the Breauxes found healing in the Cursillo movement. Through a weekend retreat and friends willing to walk with them in their pain, they returned to the Catholic Church with a desire to provide support for grieving families like themselves.
In 2018, the Breauxes founded Red Bird Ministries, a Catholic nonprofit serving individuals and couples who have experienced the loss of a child from pregnancy through adulthood.
Kelly Breaux said Red Bird offers in-depth training to diocesan and parish employees and volunteers, with seven dioceses and four parishes currently trained and 17 others in process.
Red Bird’s collection of resources includes materials for grief group leaders and a one-day couples’ workshop. With the help of Our Sunday Visitor’s Institute for Catholic Innovation, Red Bird recently launched an app that also provides an opportunity for grieving parents to schedule “comfort calls” and virtual spiritual direction.
“The families we are serving are often faithful Catholics, and their faith life is being destroyed [by grief],” Kelly said. “They need a community of believers — those who are further along on the walk — to help them through that darkness.”
“We want people to look to the Church [for healing] and not to the secular world,” she said.
Eileen Tully of Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire, experienced the death of twin babies in 2011. She shares her healing journey through Present in the Pain, an apostolate for grieving mothers who have experienced the death of a child at any age, pregnancy through adulthood.
In addition to a podcast and women’s retreat, Tully said Present in the Pain also offers a private online community. While some content is free, paying subscribers can access a virtual retreat and a biweekly live video discussion.
Tully encourages mothers to pray the Chaplet (or Rosary) of Seven Sorrows, which includes seven sets of seven Hail Marys while meditating on scenes from the Blessed Mother’s life.
Tully called the chaplet “the key to healing.”
“If I put myself emotionally in [Mary’s] place for each sorrow, I could relate my loss to each one,” she said. “Somehow, when we commiserate with her, it feels lighter instead of heavier. She has already gone through [the pain of losing a child], and she is reaching a hand back to show us the way through it.”
The Chaplet of Seven Sorrows also provided great comfort to Jennifer Goettemoeller Wendl of Lincoln, Nebraska, following the sudden death of her husband, Jeff Goettemoeller, in 2016, at the age of 44.
“One of the hardest things about loss is even if your mind understands you’re not alone, it’s just a terribly isolating event,” she said. “I never knew I could feel so alone in my life.”
Goettemoeller Wendl said the Seven Sorrows devotion, particularly Our Lady’s revelations to St. Bridget of Sweden, “helped heal my heart even more” than support from beloved family and friends.
“Hearing our Blessed Mother’s words to St. Bridget that described the depth of her pain was most helpful to me,” she said. “I instantly knew she could understand everything I felt.”
“There is a treasure of comfort there being under her mantle,” she said.
Goettemoeller Wendl also found solace in the St. Paula’s Young Widows group, a private Facebook community started by Jennifer Trapuzzano Cripe, who was widowed at age 25.
“I felt like [my family] couldn’t understand what was really in my heart and behind all my tears,” Goettemoeller Wendl said. “I leaned on that group so much. It was literally a lifesaver some days.”
Sarah Herth of Spring Creek, Nevada, relied mostly on books to help her process the death of her mother from cancer, at the age of 57, in 2015.
“The hardest part for me in grief has been that our world has no tolerance for people who are sad,” Herth said. “You’re supposed to ‘get over it’ and move on.”
She noticed that many people hesitate to ask the grieving person about their loved one for fear of making them sad.
“Through no fault of their own, they just really have no idea that I think about and miss my mom every single day,” she said. “Talking about my mom honors her life, and it shows me that you remember her also.”
“Don’t worry about making me cry,” Herth said. “Tears are healing.”
Herth also found comfort in online conversation with Jenifer Ramirez, a mother from Anna, Texas, who lost her almost-11-year-old daughter to a brain tumor in 2018. Ramirez’s website and Facebook page, Joyful Like Maggie, began as a personal journal that she initially shared with a group of friends.
“I didn’t know that people aren’t public about the really raw reality of their grief, but I realized [my experience] was really resonating with people,” she said. “They were finding hope and inspiration in the fact that my family had not left Christ in the midst of our devastation.”
Ramirez said the Joyful Like Maggie community offers support and a monthly speaker for people mourning all kinds of loss, including parents, spouses, miscarried babies and adult children.
Ramirez recommended two practices for those suffering from loss: journaling and adoring Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
“There’s actual science behind journaling,” she said. “We’re helping our brain and our physical body make sense of what we’re feeling when we put the pen to the paper.”
Ramirez also reminded those grieving that in the moment of the consecration at Mass, heaven opens, and the people in the pews are worshipping alongside the saints and the angels.
“That’s how I meet my daughter: in the Eucharist,” she said. “That’s my mommy-daughter date now.”
When guiding family, friends and clergy to help a grieving person, Deacon deMena said he uses the acronym “LOVE.”
“You first have to ‘Listen,’ and then have an ‘Open’ mind,” he said. “‘Validate’ people’s feelings, and later you can ‘Educate’ them.”
“Too often we tend to go right to, ‘Well, you know she’s in a better place,’” he said. “Most likely it’s true, but it’s not what the person needs in the moment.”
Ramirez knows firsthand that loss “feels like something you can never recover from”; however, she said it’s important for people to know that healing is possible.
“I can be joyful with my children at Christmas while also being devastated that my daughter, who would be 16 years old, is not physically here anymore,” she said. “We can learn how to walk hand in hand with both grief and joy.”