First in a three-part series on grief and reaching out for support during the holidays
In the past three years there has been a noticeable rise in the number of grief support ministries now offered in parishes throughout the Diocese of Little Rock.
One reason is the diaconate ordination in 2012.
Deacon Mike Rector, facilitator of Ministry of Consolation at Christ the King Church in Little Rock, said, “In the third year of my diaconate program, the candidates were to pick out an internship to be involved in and had to be approved for the formation class. I had a conversation in 2011 with our pastor, Msgr. (Francis I.) Malone, about a need in our parish that was not being met.
“Msgr. Malone described this need as one of support for family members after the death of a loved one when he said, ‘Mike, we are fine in our ministry of caring for the sick until we have to work with the family members during the time of the funeral and afterwards. There are people out there all alone in the months following the funeral.’”
Like many people drawn to such a ministry, Rector had his own experience with loss.
“My younger brother died with muscular dystrophy when I was 17. I had also lost my father at a young age,” he said. “That is why I felt like I could make a contribution to our parish during the third-year internship program of our diaconate training.”
The parish currently offers fall and spring sessions on Saturdays.
“Long range, I think we need to expand our program with better ways to help with the needs of children and young adults in the area of grief support,” he said. “Our ministry reinforces the Christ-centered love that flows through our parish community. This is a way for our community to continue to touch people’s lives and to help them grow spiritually.”
At Immaculate Conception Church in North Little Rock, Deacon Butch King, Compassionate Companions’ facilitator, was also in the diaconate class with Rector.
“We decided that a grief support ministry was necessary for people left behind after each funeral,” he said. “They needed more support from the parishes. They grieve alone and the church family needs to create a safe environment to tell their stories and share tears of sadness, anger, denial, etc.— a place to share their memories and emotions.”
Now that the regular fall sessions are over, King said there will be follow-up meetings for participants on the third Saturdays in November and December to offer support during the holidays.
At Hot Springs Village, Deacon John Froning, grief support facilitator at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, described their program as a two-prong approach with individual contact and support initially after the death and continuing for the first year. Afterward, this is followed by formal grief support groups offered once or twice a year by trained facilitators.
“Our structured, six-week program is designed around the idea that people spend their whole lives ‘building a story’,” he said. “The goal of grief support is to help people start a new story, a story that doesn’t involve their loved one. Otherwise they will remain stuck in grief because they have no future story. That is the challenge of grief support, and I structure our program to help them begin that process. Ultimately, they have to write their new story. No one can write it for them. Quite a task, takes time, love and God’s grace to accomplish it.”
Starting in January, a new six-week grief support program will be offered for men only in Hot Springs Village. This six-week program, according to Froning, will help men who, many times, grieve differently than women and express themselves quite differently as a result.
At Our Lady of Holy Souls Church in Little Rock, team facilitators Laura Humphries and Mary Ann Stafford started their group sessions in October. “Understanding Your Grief” by Alan D. Wolfelt is the book participants are using for their assigned work. Humphries has been a parish life coordinator at the church for 13 years and recently received her certification from the Association of Death Education and Counseling.
In discussing her work at the church, Humphries said, “Parish life along with outreach is my bailiwick. I’ve had people call me about grief support as well as other issues and I felt that this was a ministry that was lacking in our church. So, with Father Erik’s (Pohlmeier) approval, I decided to work on my certification.”
On the other hand, Stafford is an artist and teacher who uses art in her presentations for grief support groups. As a widow and artist, Stafford believes the use of art and music is good therapy for anyone suffering from a loss.
A special event, Blue Christmas is planned for Tuesday, Dec. 22 at 6:30 p.m. at the church as a service of remembrance.
“Christmas time is such a difficult time for people who are mourning,” Humphries said. “This simple ceremony is something we can do to support those who have lost a loved one.”
According to Kathy Kordsmeier, director of Beacon of Hope Ministry at St. Joseph Church in Conway, the ministry started in 2002 when a dozen volunteers received training from the National Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved.
“We offer a wide range of services to the bereaved, including support groups for the bereaved and for the divorced, memorial services, luncheons for widows and widowers, a card ministry, one-day conferences, grief-related print and video resources and individual counseling,” she said. “Beacon of Hope Ministry has served hundreds of people, both parishioners and non-parishioners.”
Their grief support program, Sharing the Journey, is held on Saturday mornings for six sessions from August to November and then again for six sessions from February to May. About five to 10 attend each session.
Kordsmeier described her work with Beacon of Hope Ministry as “the most satisfying and fulfilling work I have ever done.”
“It is an honor and privilege to minister to those who are grieving the loss of a loved one or some significant loss in their life,” she said.
Smaller parishes in Arkansas continue to work with family members who have lost a loved one as well. According to George Kelly, a member of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Fairfield Bay, his work as chairman of the Social Justice and Outreach Ministry involves working one-on-one with people in need of grief support. Retirees from Kansas, Kelly and his wife, Ellen moved to Fairfield Bay in 2005. Previously widowed in earlier marriages, the couple felt ‘that our personal experiences enabled us to offer significant expertise in guiding families in grief through the process,” he said.
In this retirement community, Ellen Kelly presents seminars on pre-arrangement to members of the St. Francis Altar Society where she explains the need and importance of documenting end-of-life directives. Together, they work to maintain records of internments and vacancies in the St. Francis of Assisi Columbarium.
St. Francis of Assisi Church has fewer than 200 active members and the average age of its parishioners is estimated to be 75.
“Since Ellen and I retired and moved here to Fairfield Bay, we have helped to organize some 40 funerals in our parish,” Kelly said. “This includes serving non-Catholic family members who are grieving as well. We recognize that everyone experiences grief differently. There are no road maps or documented procedures to follow, just your heart.”
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