When her husband unexpectedly died of a stroke, Jane White turned to her parish bereavement group for support. “It helped me a lot to go that first time, to cry openly and have people understand why I was crying,” she said.
The bereavement group, from St. Timothy Church in Chantilly, meditated on the seven sorrows of Mary and prayed through the Scriptures. Members helped each other solve practical problems, like how to do things their deceased loved ones usually had done for them. After two years, White felt she was able to move on.
“This is God’s plan for me,” said White, who stays busy as a clinical instructor. “I miss him every day, but I do the best I can.”
All Catholics are called through the spiritual works of mercy to comfort the afflicted or sorrowful, but some parishes have specific ministries to ensure no one falls through the cracks. Colleen Dundon used her experience as a cancer nurse to start the bereavement group at St. Timothy, now in its 10th year. Around 15 people come per meeting from St. Timothy and nearby parishes.
St. John Neumann Church in Reston sends a card to the family of every parishioner whose funeral is there, and then sends another card on the first anniversary. Volunteers also write cards to the homebound, or those who are ill. On Easter, they deliver lilies to nursing homes, and in the fall the young adult group decorates pumpkins for them.
One woman volunteered after seeing how much joy her aged parents received from getting the cards, said Jo-Ann Duggan, director of outreach for St. John Neumann. “I think (the parishioners) feel like they are less alone, knowing their parish is thinking of them,” said Duggan. “It’s so important to let people know that we’re praying for them.”
Though experiencing pain or grief is undeniably hard, Dundon believes that through suffering comes redemptive transformation. “Our faith is the most important part of the whole journey. It’s our forever friend,” she said.
The St. Timothy ministry is dedicated to both Our Lady of Sorrows and Our Lady of Hope, said Dundon. “(Mary) is truly our model for growing through the bereavement process. As much as grief is one side of death, hope is the other side.”
Just as prayer provides solace, the members also find encouragement from one another. “It's amazing to see the validation that they get through each other in a comfortable setting where they can share and not be judged. The peer network gives them a chance to share their problems and their worries. Through the prayers we bring them to a place of healing, and hopefully they feel hope again,” said Dundon.
“It’s important they know they don't have to walk this path alone,” she said. “No matter where you go, you become symbols of hope for each other and that what it’s all about: Christ in each of us.”
Tips for comforting the sorrowful
— Ask how someone is doing, and truly be ready for their answer, said Dundon. “Asking a question that would (allow for) a short answer is a safe way for people to do it,” she said. Be prepared to hear what they have to say.
— Use empathetic statements and concrete actions.
“Acknowledge what the person has been through,” said Dundon. “Say, ‘I’m here for you, you’ve been through a lot this year.”
Everyone appreciates a well-meaning statement of support, but actions speak volumes, said Dundon. “Tell them, ‘I plan to make dinner for you next week,’ instead of, ‘Can I make dinner for you?’ Don’t say, ‘I’m praying for you.’ Rather, say, ‘I said a rosary and offered a Mass for you.’ ” — Invite them out to social gatherings.“It’s nice to get together, to let people know that life does go on,” said Dundon.
White encourages her grieving friends to join a support group, like the one at St. Timothy, and to journal, which she said greatly helped her relieve her sadness.
— Don’t assume that the loss of an elderly person will be easier for them to accept. “No matter the age, that person had a place in your heart. The more you loved that person, the deeper the hurt,” said Dundon.
— Get your parish involved. Start or join a card ministry, a bereavement group, the Arimatheans (men and women who serve as ushers, lectors and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion at funerals), or another group that serves the grieving.
If there’s not one already, ask your pastor to host a memorial service for parishioners who have died.