Powerful Sorrow: The Spiritual Journey of Terri’s Family

Brother Paul O’Donnell has accompanied Terri Schiavo’s family on a Way of the Cross.

He has been a spiritual adviser and, most recently, family spokesman for Robert and Mary Schindler.

The co-founder of the Minneapolis/St. Paul-based Pro-Life Action Ministries and the Franciscan Brothers of Peace, Brother O’Donnell is no stranger to end-of-life issues. For 12½ years he cared for his community’s brain-damaged co-founder, Brother Michael Gaworski. He spoke with Register staff writer Tim Drake from Florida the day after Terri Schiavo died.

The day Terri died must have been an exhausting day for you and the Schindler family.

Yes, it was. It’s been a horrendous situation, but the Schindlers are strong people of faith and we’ve had time to prepare for this. There’s been a lot of prayer and we’re accepting this as God’s will. His will is never easy. It’s been very difficult for them to lose their daughter this way.

How did you come to know the Schindler family?

This all started with our founder, Brother Michael, and what happened to him.

When he was 32, he contracted a sudden bacterial pneumonia. He was in a condition similar to Terri for 12½ years. We cared for him until he died in August 2003. As a caregiver, I realized that there was very little support for those who have a loved one in a seriously brain-damaged state. I began speaking about the rights of brain-injured persons and, while at a National Right to Life Committee meeting, I met Terri’s brother, Bobby Schindler.

I saw some of the videos of Terri and was profoundly affected. When I saw Terri, I was convicted in my heart. Here was someone very similar to Brother Michael. All her parents wanted to do was to be able to care for her.

I came back to my community and told the members that it was no coincidence that we lived through this experience. I told them that we needed to reach out to the family, and so I contacted the Schindlers, offering prayers, support, and friendship.

How are Bob and Mary Schindler dealing with their daughter’s death?

This is an ordinary mom and dad. On one hand, they are like anyone who has lost a child. They are in shock. There are a lot of distractions — friends, the media, funeral plans.

A month from now, the stark reality of what just happened will hit them. Their daughter was starved and dehydrated before them. I’ve been with many people when they were dying, particularly with my work with our AIDS ministry in the 1980s. This was not a death with dignity. This was barbaric.

What kind of spiritual support have you offered to them through all of this?

Bob really used me as a sounding board. He would hear what the attorneys had to say and his head would be just spinning. I would listen to it all and absorb it and help him to analyze it. He used me in a consultative capacity.

Mary is a very private person. It was more me with her one-on-one talking, praying and giving her strength through all of this. The coincidences of this happening during Lent are just amazing. Our Lord hanging on the cross saying, “I thirst.” The two Marys standing by, able to do nothing. The Holy Father going on a feeding tube at the same time.

How did you come to be a spokesman for the family?

I was visiting them once or twice a month for four or five days at a time before coming down here full-time starting Feb. 15. As I visited with them, I started attending all of the court proceedings and visits to the hospice. I would wait outside the room while her parents went in.

I was privy to every conversation for hours and hours. In the last six weeks, the family felt that if they were not able to speak and communicate a message, they felt they could trust me. They asked me to be the official spokesperson for the family.

There are all kinds of groups that have been concerned about Terri, but the family needed someone to speak for them when they couldn’t speak.

When I first offered help, I told them I would do anything — driving them to appointments, cooking, praying — so when they asked me to do this, I said Yes.

I would have loved to have been the quiet one behind the scenes, but this was thrust upon me and I willingly accepted it. I think this is what God wanted us to do.

I look forward to the day when I can go back to my friary and be back in my room with my golden lab.

When did the Schindlers come to accept Terri’s death?

It’s certainly been an emotional roller coaster of ups and downs for years. This was the third time she had had her feeding tube removed. Every time we gained a victory in the courts, something came to knock it down. The last two weeks, her parents never felt that they would go through with it.

They didn’t think the feeding tube would be removed. When they saw Congress and the president act, there was hope. That hope was shattered when the judge decided the way that he did.

They hoped that something would happen with Michael Schiavo’s compassion or that a last-minute appeal would work, but the last 24 hours we knew that she was dying and that it was something that God had intended.

There has been much attention in the media upon whether Michael allowed Terri’s parents to be with her when she died. What happened?

Michael Schiavo controlled who saw Terri and who didn’t. There were chunks of time when he blocked all visitation and the family couldn’t get in for between 10 and 12 hours. We were told the night before Terri’s death that they didn’t think she would make it more than 24 hours.

Bobby and Suzanne, Terri’s sister,  kept a vigil across the street from midnight to 7:30 a.m. They wanted to be with her when she passed away. They tried to get in but were barred and were told to check back every 30 minutes.

When we finally started complaining about lack of access, Bobby and Suzanne were allowed in. After half an hour they were asked to leave the room so that Terri could be assessed.

They could have assessed Terri while they were in the room. Bobby pleaded, saying, “I want to stay. I’ll be peaceful,” but they were ordered out. While Bob and Mary were en route, Terri died.

It was a power play until the end. Michael wanted to give the image that he, not her parents, would be at her side holding her hand. It was very sad. The family asked for her body so that they could have a Mass of Christian burial, but the family will have no remains.

Michael is having her cremated and having a funeral service for her in Pennsylvania. Even in death her family is deprived of everything.

From your perspective, how did something like this happen?

It was our court system run amok. When this started, the Schindlers didn’t have a lot of money. Their first attorney didn’t call any medical doctors because they weren’t able to pay anything. Our system is not perfect. The courts and the system didn’t work in this case.

What’s the next step?

What this is about is that we in our society still look with disdain upon the profoundly disabled and say, “Eww, who would want to live that way?” We make a judgment.

We’ve been educated by media and Hollywood that if you are profoundly disabled, your life isn’t worth living. That’s basically what the judge said. That goes against the teachings of the Church. I believe that this whole struggle is about the rights of the disabled.

This ordeal is the Roe v. Wade of the euthanasia movement. When Roe v. Wade was decided, it took 32 years for the Right to Life movement to gain a voice. With this, we’re already there. This is a battle between the culture of life and the culture of death. It doesn’t matter if we are in the minority. We are to be representatives of the culture of life.

All of our work is not just for Terri. It’s to help someone else. We go forward from here honoring Terri, but carrying her legacy. Now the whole world knows. We hope that we will be able to pass legislation such as the Incapacitated Person’s Protection Act so that this never happens again. We will continue to speak so that this never happens again.

Tim Drake writes from

St. Joseph, Minnesota.